Photojournalist goes under the ice to document Arctic climate change

Dec 13, 2013

Randall Hyman is a St. Louis-based photojournalist and writer. For more than three decades, he has traveled the globe covering cultural and environmental issues.

Hyman recently spent four months in the Norwegian Arctic on a Fulbright project documenting climate change.

He told St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra that Norwegians are already feeling the effects of global warming.

Hyman: They long ago stopped debating whether there’s climate change. They live with it every day. The temperature in the Arctic is rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe. So that world is a good indicator of where we’re headed.

And I know you spent some time on a research ship with scientists who are looking at some of those changes, can you talk a little about that?

A crew member aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute's research ship, R/V Lance, prepares to deploy a huge seine net used for collecting phytoplankton and zooplankton from continuous water columns over 1000 feet deep along the continental shelf off the coast of Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago.
Credit Randall Hyman

Hyman: Yeah, the focus of the two weeks that I spent on the Lanse which is the Norwegian Polar Institute’s research ship ― that was a group of 15 scientists, five of whom were divers, [who] believe it or not, dive under the ice, in waters that are about 29 Fahrenheit.

What they’re looking at, is they’re collecting the microorganisms, and also looking at the chemistry, and the temperature, and even density of the water, to try to determine what’s happening to the currents, and how is it affecting the environment, the marine environment.

This is done with a variety of instruments that can be dropped way, way, way down into the water, we’re talking a mile deep or more.

And what they’ve seen is that every year, every season, the water is getting warmer, it’s going farther north, the sea ice is receding farther and farther. So they’re following the ice, and they’re following the changes in the temperature and the microorganisms, and then of course how that affects the rest of the species that depend on them.

Shattered Arctic: In Search of Ice from Randall Hyman on Vimeo.

This is a really extreme environment we’re talking about. You mentioned diving in 29 degree water. Can you just describe a little bit about what that was like, both for you as journalist to be on this research vessel for two weeks, and for the scientists who are doing this kind of work?

Hyman: It’s fascinating. We started in waters that were ice free, and we did all of this monitoring and sampling, and then we moved farther, and farther, and farther north. And then the object was to go as far north as we could until we hit so much ice that we couldn’t move which is what happened.

A diver pulls a sledge full of equipment from the Norwegian Polar Institute's research ship.
Credit Randall Hyman

And we moored our ship to the ice. And the trick is to find a hole, usually a breathing hole that seals keep throughout the winter so that they can ― they are mammals, they have to have air. And that’s a good place to jump down under the surface.

For me as a journalist, perhaps the worst hardship was trying to film that. I’m not a diver, and I’m not going under the ice. I took a painter’s pole and mounted a little head cam, or a GoPro, as it were, at the end of this extendable pole, and I followed the cords that lead down to the divers.

A diver surfaces with a suction plunger full of tiny marine life beneath the ice 500 miles from the North Pole.
Credit Randall Hyman

They have to have cords, because when they’re down there, and they look up at the surface of the ice, it’s just one big long white expanse, they can’t find the hole. So they have to have a cord, so they don’t get trapped under there without an air supply.

And so I would just follow those cords, and take a good guess as to what direction they were in, and where to point the camera and hope that I wasn’t just filming blue or a block of ice, or whatever. And I was lucky, I had a lot of good footage from it.

Out of everything you saw, what’s kind of the main message that you took away with you from your time in Norway?

Hyman: Ay. The main message would probably be that we should take note of how rapidly it’s changing in the Arctic. I’ve been going there for three decades now, and there’s much less ice, the summers are longer, they’re hotter, the winters are shorter, storms are more freakish. And you can’t put your finger on any single item, but there’s no question that in the last three decades, there’s been rapid change.

And that’s a reflection of what is happening elsewhere in the world, it’s just magnified in the Arctic.

Svalbard glacier calving from Randall Hyman on Vimeo.

This story originally aired as part of Under the Microscope, a weekly program about science, health, and technology in mid-Missouri.