Editor’s Note: Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series committed to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet, together with the solutions. Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative has partnered with CNN to drive awareness and education around key sustainability issues and to inspire positive action.
Water cascading from a wall of ice with gray brushstrokes of clouds overhead makes for a beautiful image – but the story behind it is one of destruction; Earth’s glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate due to human-caused climate change.
Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen remembers taking the photograph. It was August 2014, and temperatures in Svalbard, Norway, were unusually warm – hovering above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). As he came around the corner of an ice cap on Nordaustlandet island, he saw more than a dozen waterfalls pouring off its face.
“It was the most poetic, beautiful scene I’d ever seen, but it was also haunting and scary,” he recalls. The picture came to symbolize the realities of climate change and became Nicklen’s best-selling fine art image. It appeared multiple times in National Geographic, was used by Al Gore in his climate talks, and graced the cover of Pearl Jam’s 2020 album “Gigaton,” the title of which refers to the unit used to calculate ice mass.
Its beauty is central to its impact, believes Nicklen. “When you take a photograph that is in focus, properly exposed, moody and powerful, it creates a visceral reaction,” he says. “It has to be beautiful and engaging, it has to invite you in … and it has to have a conservation message.”
In 2014, Nicklen, along with his wife Cristina Mittermeier, and later joined by Andy Mann (both also award-winning photographers), co-founded the nonprofit organization SeaLegacy, which uses film and photography to raise awareness of climate issues and help protect the planet.
“Photography is one of the most effective and powerful tools we have to tell complex stories, like the story of climate change,” says Mittermeier.
She witnessed this power with one of her own photographs, taken in August 2017, which showed a starving polar bear. After being published in National Geographic, the photo and accompanying video went viral, shared on social media and by news organizations worldwide. It sparked a global conversation on climate change, provoking responses ranging from concern and empathy to climate denial. But there was no denying that it shook the world: “People still remember it and have strong reactions when they see it,” Mittermeier reflects.
As guest editors for CNN’s Call to Earth series, Nicklen and Mittermeier selected these two images, along with eight others, that they believe have alerted the world to the climate crisis.
Nicklen compares photographing climate change to photographing conflict. “We’re out there on the front lines of the war being waged against our planet. It’s emotionally draining, exhausting,” he says.
In recent decades, as climate disasters have become more frequent and intense, images have more explicitly captured the urgency of the situation. Six dead giraffes, bodies emaciated from the lack of food and water, photographed by Ed Ram, show the horror of Kenya’s prolonged ongoing drought, which has threatened and displaced animals and humans alike. Photographs of wildfires, like those that ravaged Australia in 2019 and 2020, show the scale of devastation, with homes on fire and wildlife fleeing in despair.
“They show that climate change isn’t just happening somewhere else, it’s happening everywhere,” says Mittermeier. “All of a sudden, it will come knocking a lot closer to your own door.”
Mittermeier remembers the work of her friend and one of her great influences, Gary Braasch, who she describes as a “chronicler of climate change.” The photographer, who died in 2016, dedicated the last two decades of his life to documenting how the Earth was changing in response to global warming – from Antarctica, with its melting glaciers, to Bhola Island in Bangladesh, where sea level rise and increasing erosion have turned villages into islands. Braasch’s commitment to the cause blazed the way for Nicklen and Mittermeier’s generation of conservation photographers.
At times however, climate change can be tediously slow to chronicle. Sea levels rise by a matter of millimeters each year – a barely visible increment despite happening at a faster rate than ever before. But such changes add up, and if they are visually documented over years or decades the impact becomes clear.
“It’s like photographing a slow-moving tsunami,” says Mittermeier. “It’s often hard to see in the moment, but when two images are put side-by-side, it’s hard not to see the impact the climate crisis is having.”
Read: Scientists are listening to glaciers to discover the secrets of the oceans
The work of photographer James Balog has been crucial in creating the visual narrative of climate change, she says. Using a network of time-lapse cameras recording glaciers around the world, his Extreme Ice Survey has demonstrated how glaciers are vanishing over time. The extensive archive of photos of each glacier taken year-round at every daylight hour has also provided a baseline from which future changes can be measured.
“It became just irrefutable proof,” says Mittermeier. “That was a very important moment for climate photography.”
Mittermeier and Nicklen also selected images where humans and nature collide. One effect of climate change is a dramatic loss of biodiversity. Since 1970, wildlife populations have plummeted by 69%, due predominantly to land-use change that has fragmented crucial habitats, and also rising temperatures, which have led to mass mortality events, according to the WWF’s 2022 Living Planet Report.
Read: The icy patience of an Arctic photographer
With the Arctic warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the globe, the ice that polar bears depend on is melting away. Dmitry Kokh’s photograph “House of Bears,” one of the winners of the 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, shows polar bears roaming an abandoned Soviet settlement on Kolyuchin Island. While the buildings had long been deserted, Mittermeier believes it points to the increasing problem of polar bears – with no ice left to hunt on – encroaching on human spaces and encountering local people, leading to tragic outcomes for both sides.
The effects of climate change will – and are already – hitting animals and humans alike. “It’s impossible to deny that we are all in this together,” says Mittermeier. “We are all impacted in devastating ways, and we cannot separate ourselves from the life we share this planet with.”
The series “The Day May Break” from photographer Nick Brandt portrays this by showing people and animals affected by environmental destruction. The photographs, taken in animal sanctuaries around the world, feature people that have been displaced by climate change events such as drought or floods, and animals that have been victims of habitat destruction or wildlife trafficking. Portraying both in the same frame shows how deeply our fates are intertwined.
Among the images of devastation and displacement, there are also those that signify hope. In Brandt’s work, he points out that the subjects of the images, both people and animals, are survivors – “And therein lies hope and possibility,” he wrote in an email.
Read: The ocean’s ‘blue carbon’ can be our secret weapon in fighting climate change
For Mittermeier and Nicklen, and SeaLegacy as a whole, striking a message of hope is vital to the wider mission. “Martin Luther King didn’t start his famous speech by reminding us that we live in a nightmare – he told us what the dream is,” says Mittermeier. “You have to point out what it is that we’re aspiring to and show where the hope is.”
The hope, she believes, is in wildlife and the ocean. Humans are just waking up to the role that both play in mitigating climate change, and restoring nature will be crucial in averting the crisis. For Mittermeier, her photograph of a sea lion rising up to the surface in the Galapagos – one of the largest marine protected areas in the world – shows how ocean life can flourish with the right protection. And Nicklen’s photograph of a bowhead whale represents to him one of our greatest allies in decarbonization: not only are whales’ bodies enormous stores of carbon, their feces fuels phytoplankton which soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
By showing off the beauty of the planet, the couple believe they can show people it is still worth fighting for.
“We’re trying to climb to the tallest mountain and scream from the mountaintops that this planet is dying, and that we are at risk,” says Nicklen.
“But the only emotion greater than fear is hope,” adds Mittermeier. “And the only way you can feel hope is if you take action.”