11/11/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

National Geographic photographer says ice melt a 'wake-up call'

Paul Nicklen is one of a small cadre of photographers regularly on assignment for National Geographic magazine, whose beat is capturing never-before-seen images of animals living in some of the iciest environments on Earth.

These environments are disappearing at an alarming rate, he says, and are the beginning of a decline that if unchecked could spell the end for humans and polar bears alike.

Nicklen, 44, grew up on Baffin Island and fell in love with scuba diving in the chilly waters off Vancouver Island while completing a biology degree at the University of Victoria. He says ice is in his blood, which might explain why he dives into below-freezing polar water several times a day on assignments that can last for months. 

Nicklen spoke to CBC News by telephone ahead of a talk he is giving in Toronto on Nov. 11 and 12 called Polar Obsessions. Following is a Q&A from that conversation.

Q: What changes have you seen in your years working on and under polar ice?

A: The changes are dramatic. In the Arctic, 168 years ago, Franklin’s team was stuck in ice in the Northwest Passage. Now people are going through in little yachts.…100 years is a blip of time but now, scientists say that once-permanent ice will be gone in as few as five to 10 years. It's happening that fast.

Q: Canada, for one, is increasing its presence in its Arctic territory. Are you seeing positive outcomes for wildlife in the North?

A: The Arctic countries [Canada, the U.S., Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Russia] are all of a sudden interested in the North because resources are becoming accessible. Now we can go get oil and send our shipping containers through and that is exacerbating problems for species already in decline.

Now there is not only the risk to animals posed by disappearing ice but you have noise pollution under water, risk of a spill.… It just compounds the problems that are already there.


A: It's about trends. It's been a healthy, stable global environment for thousands of years and now we are dealing with a quick shift. Because of the release of fossil fuels the climate is changing so quickly. We’re already seeing massive droughts and tropical storms. 

The Arctic and Antarctic are just showing the effects of warming sooner and faster than other places on the planet, but it's happening everywhere.

We’re already going to lose a bunch of species in the next 10 years and the polar bear is likely just one.

Joel Sartore [a National Geographic photographer who takes pictures of animals saved from extinction by zoos] is covering terrestrial animals and James Balog [whose work on retreating glaciers is captured in the multiple award-winning documentary film Chasing Ice] is doing ice and I'm focused on marine animals. But they're all connected.

All these rapid changes are indicators of what is coming. People are crazy if they don’t think this will eventually lead to the demise of humans.

Q: Can documentary photography make a difference?

A: Photos definitely make a difference, and the better my images are the greater the chance I can hook people into reading the story. Now more than ever, since the magazine is more dependent on newsstand sales, my pictures need to really hammer you over the head to make you stop and read the stories I care the most about.

For example, my pictures were probably one of the primary reasons PIPA, one of the largest marine protection areas in the world, became protected.

Q: Does the proliferation of digital photography threaten your kind of expensive, remote coverage?

A: Twenty years ago as an up and comer I’d have been worried. Everybody is a photographer these days and a lot more people making a living doing it, but when you shoot for money it's not as rewarding as when you shoot to tell a story, so for me, it's not about money or success or ego or fame. It’s about getting the story out there.

With groups like the ILCP, which my girlfriend, Cristina Mittermeier, started, if there is a disaster like an oil spill, we have the donor funding in place so we can go into the field that night and then give the pictures away to partners to raise awareness of the issue.

Not in my backyard

Nicklen’s work isn’t always in far-flung corners of the globe. He lives on Vancouver Island and in 2010 pitched the magazine on a story about rare white bears living in a remote enclave of the province's northwest coast — territory that coincides with the route of the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline. It took months to find a Kermode, or spirit bear, but the effort paid off with a cover story in the August 2011 issue.

“I feel like of all the battles we’ve had, [stopping the Northern Gateway] is winnable. The First Nations have come together. We’re fighting industry. I’m about to go do a talk in Calgary, which will be interesting, and we’ll just keep sticking our necks out,” he said.  

“We need progress, sure, development is necessary but for some places, the pristine beautiful places like the Great Bear Rainforest, those places just have to be off limits.”

Nicklen gives his Polar Obsessions talk at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Nov. 11 and 12 as part of the National Geographic Live speakers series.