As the Earth warms, Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen brings climate change to your social media feeds

Paul Nicklen may be the International Photography Hall of Fame’s youngest — and busiest — inductee, but he has no plans to stop, at least while climate change continues to threaten the planet.

“When they [the hall of fame] originally phoned me, they said, ‘We have a real conundrum,'” Nicklen recalled in an interview with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. 

“I’m like, ‘Well, our planet’s dying. I’m just going to get busier, so it’s up to you guys whether you want to give it to me or not, but I can’t get any younger or any older quicker — I’m just going to keep working.'”

A photographer, filmmaker and marine biologist, Nicklen’s work is often found in the pages of National Geographic. 

But it’s his Instagram feed that has made him a well-known voice in the fight against climate change. 

On Tuesday, the United Nations released a report that found the Earth will warm by 3.2 C in less than 100 years if drastic measures aren’t taken to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“It’s so frustrating and fascinating that every time they come up with a new announcement, it’s kind of like a surprise to everybody,” he said about the week’s news.

Nicklen says that while highlighting the science is crucial, “science does not make that emotional connection that wakes up people.” 

That’s why Nicklen uses his lens to shine a light on the impact climate change is having on the Earth and animals.

“I really feel a photograph, it has to be that cross section of art, science and conservation,” he said.

‘My dream is to be a ghost’

Nicklen’s wildlife photography is intimate. He gets up close and personal with his subjects — often, polar bears in Canada’s Arctic.

“My dream is to be a ghost; it’s to be a fly on the wall. It’s not to be noticed by the animal, it’s not to alter the behaviour,” he explained.

“But at the same time, if I want people to care about these species and care about these ecosystems and care about climate change, then my photography has to be close, powerful and intimate.”

A polar bear enjoying the meat of a seal it hunted near Monaco Glacier in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. (Paul Nicklen)

One recent photo features a polar bear gorging on a meal of bearded seal. It’s a daunting assignment — but one that Nicklen says he’s used to after photographing more than 3,000 bears over his career.

“He had stuffed himself so full that … he probably had five million calories burning through his body and you could tell he had these bearded seal sweats going on,” Nicklen joked.

“I started walking up to him and photographing him, getting closer and trying to get the shot. His only defence, really, was to keep eating.”

Nicklen says that the key to his work is a commodity that’s in short supply for many: plenty of time.

“I have time to sit there for hours and days waiting, say, for a bear to see me and then to smell me and then hear the click of my shutter and get to know the sound of the camera,” he said.

A baker’s dozen of crashed drones

While bears haven’t proved a problem for Nicklen, his work hasn’t been completely free of scrapes with danger.

After years of photographing animals from atop sea ice — narwhals, in particular — Nicklen realized that to take his work further, he would have to fly over the water.

So, the photographer started taking to the air for a new angle on his subjects — and crashed a handful of planes in the process.

“It’s kind of embarrassing. My first airplane, I crashed. We lost the engine on takeoff and sort of piledrove that airplane, destroyed it, and got a little bit hurt,” he recalled.

Then, a pilot error in his next plane landed him upside down in Arctic waters.

“That’s normally a fatal incident for most pilots, but I guess I’ve had so many tragic, scary moments underwater scuba diving that I was able to stay calm and sort myself through it,” he said, adding he eventually punched his way out of the cockpit.

Since then, he’s crashed 13 drones — but, “we’ve come back with some good footage,” he said.


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