Arctic frame – Svalbard polar bears through a lens
A photographer’s dream called Svalbard. Located between Norway and the North Pole and dominated by ice, wind, and sea. It is the habitat of the polar bear and home to Melissa Schaefer. White, wild, and beautiful. The arctic surroundings come with cold temperatures, stunning aurora light shows, and the blue tones of glaciers. Freeze frame – some people tell a story with a camera, Melissa is one of them. Let her talk and you will inevitably end up loving that Arctic part of our planet as much as she does. I did already and that’s how we met.
Svalbard, prior to 1925 also known by its Dutch name Spitsbergen, referring to the island discovered by Willem Barentsz in 1596, is a faraway place. The archipelago is located north above the Arctic Circle, which means a midnight sun in summer and a polar night in winter. Glacial ice covers about 60% of the land, only 10% is vegetated. The other 30% is barren rock. Untouched yet fragile nature. The polar bear, arctic fox, reindeer, sea mammals, and sea birds all get a fair share here. Their land it is, the ice set in blue and white colors. Setting foot on Svalbard is stepping into a dream. Or the other way around, as Melissa Schaefer likes to say.
“This is what we see on television. It looks like another place… not ours. Faraway, not real. But this is our life and our planet. It is the reality of a much bigger and more important part of our world than most know.”
Photography meets life and polar bears
Melissa’s story reads like a film script. First question: why polar bears? She cannot point at a specific date but it all started at a very young age. Animal lover, with a fascination for polar bears. And a photography amateur, starting at age twelve. She got a Canon when she was fifteen and photography turned out to be more than just a hobby. Her ambitions met reality when change knocked at the front door, two years ago. Sometimes it happens just like that. The new life came with a name, Fredrik Granath. Film and photography producer, with a strong focus on polar regions and polar bears. Love, work, adventure, and travel sent her to Svalbard. At age twenty-four Melissa waved her home country Germany goodbye, moved to Sweden, and shortly after she was lying on the arctic ice to capture her first polar bear.
“My hands….I could not feel them anymore. I had only one thought: keep the camera pointed on her. In Germany I never saw a polar bear, for I did not want to visit a zoo to stare at a caged animal. I wanted to see them as they are, or should be. Free, wild and majestic. And there it was, my first bear. Free, wild and impressive. And very, very close. Looking at me.”
The Arctic is a dangerous place
The most dangerous part of working in the Arctic is the environment itself. Nature, landscape, climate. Weather conditions change in seconds, from a clear blue sky to a total whiteout and strong winds. You never know what will happen or how bad the weather will be, so you have to be cautious all the time. The key to fieldwork in the Arctic is to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The glaciers you travel over are constantly moving, sea ice is changing its location every day. Therefore you have to make sure to have everything with you in order to survive and return. The danger is not the bear, it’s the Arctic.
“Two years ago, my first long trip out of the village Longyearbyen. We went to the east coast of Spitsbergen on Svalbard. Six hours of driving snowmobile through valleys, over mountains and glaciers. Our goal: the area where land meets the sea ice – the natural habitat of the polar bear.”
Prepare for trouble
A new world it was. Working with polar bears came with an introduction to the Arctic environment, safety rules, snowmobiles, weapons, and survival basics. In her former hometown Hamburg in Germany, Melissa had been reading and watching everything available on polar bears. Now she was heading for the reality check. With a big smile, she admits that the polar bear, an encounter now so close, scared the wits out of her…
Polar bears are one of the most dangerous species on earth. That is if you are doing it wrong, she says. “They see you as food, can smell you from far away. And if they want to, they can be way faster than you could ever imagine. Fredrik works with bears for 15 years now and he never had to kill or hurt one. Note that he never was in danger as well, simply because he knows how to read their body language and the situation itself.”
The Arctic is theirs
It all starts with respecting the natural environment. The one planet idea. Melissa Schaefer and her partner Fredrik Granath aim at documenting the natural world with its inhabitants. Showing the strength and power of the Arctic, as well as the changes that are ongoing. Not for the better because polar bears need ice. And that is, literally, drifting away, out of reach while it is melting. It is what they see up there. The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the Earth, straining ecosystems and causing more sea ice to melt each year. Without its cooling effect, much of our world would look and feel very different. In short, our fate is tied to this frozen world. Both of them state this very clearly.
“If we are not sure or feel uncomfortable, we go away. You don’t risk coming close to a bear, especially because we don’t want to disturb the wildlife. We are the visitors, the Arctic is their home.”
Polar bears, glaciers, and ice
The polar bear is almost synonym with glaciers and ice. Why? No ice, no bears. In summer, when temperatures rise above the freezing point, the landmasses of ice, the glaciers, come alive. Constantly moving back and forth, they are sculpting the land beneath. Some glaciers flow several miles per year, with more snow and ice being added at their source, and ice dropping off their front.
Throughout history, ice has sculpted roughly one-third of the landmasses on our planet. Three-quarters of the freshwater is in the form of ice. Glaciers, snow, and sea ice work as our planet’s own air conditioner, they reflect sun rays back into the atmosphere. As our climate becomes warmer and the ice melts, more solar energy is instead absorbed by open water and bare or vegetated land areas. This solar energy is transformed into heat, warming the planet, causing more snow and ice to melt.
Most glaciers have been retreating since the middle of the 19th century. However, during the last couple of decades, global warming is speeding up. The bad news it is, glaciers are retreating more rapidly than ever before.
Old ice reads like a book on history. It is an archive of Earth’s climate, something that shouldn’t be lost.
“What we want is watch and learn, tell the world and be one with nature. It is a visit, the Arctic is not our home. It doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the wildlife, to the polar bear. If we are not welcome, we go. It feels like I have been here all my life. But it’s only two years! It is highly addictive and it started when I met my first bear. I called her Helen.”
“And there she was, walking in our direction. She stopped close to an iceberg. Panic and awe, all at the same time. Fredrik reassured me, constantly telling me what he saw. A young, female bear, interested in us. Sniffing the air with every step she made. Relaxed, not afraid. Slowly she walked in a zick zack pattern towards us. A good strategy, for you cannot tell how fast they will be. Next, she rolled on the snow and just stayed near to the iceberg, continuously smelling, watching us. And then, I will never forget, she looked straight into my eyes. Holding my breath, I started taking my first polar bear photographs.”
QUICK FACTS ON THE ARCTIC AND CLIMATE CHANGE
- 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, according to Nasa data, and the hottest year without the short-term warming influence of an El Niño event. (Source The Guardian)
- Unless we manage to cut down global carbon pollution, temperatures will continue to rise and climate change consequences will become more severe. The year 2017 could be just a taste of what’s about to come.
- NASA reports: Carbon dioxide levels in the air are at their highest in 650,000 years • The Arctic yearly minimum of sea ice is decreasing by 13.2 percent per decade. • Glaciers are melting at a rate of 286 gigatonnes per year. • The sea level is rising 3.4 millimeters per year. • All these are accelerating at rates that are difficult to predict. One reason is that ice and snow reflect heat from the sun back into the atmosphere. Dark, open water and land free of snow, on the other hand, absorb the heat, further accelerating the warming. A gloomy message…
Summing it up, the more it melts, the faster it melts…
- More about Melissa Schaefer and Fredrik Granath and their work in the Arctic at www.hubbaproductions.com
- More polar bear and cold weather stories at the photographer’s blog www.themotherbear.com
- Their friends Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, founders of SeaLegacy, website www.sealegacy.org. On a mission to create healthy and abundant oceans.
- A lot on climate change on the NASA website Global Climate Change
- Polar bears, their habitat, behavior, life cycle, climate change, and much more on the website Polar Bears International
- A changing environment, climate change, and international agreements find The Arctic Council website
- Last but not least, the famous Hurtigruten travel option to Svalbard www.hurtigruten.com/destinations/svalbard/
Melissa Schaefer – a photographer with a purpose. Showing the beauty of the Arctic and its wildlife, especially the polar bear, to make people aware and care.
Find her photos and stories on Instagram @melissa_schaefer and Fredrik Granath @fredgranath
Image credits: Melissa Schaefer and Fredrik Granath