Campus News

Trekking through ice for climate awareness

Sebastian Copeland delivers remarks at the UB Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water (RENEW) Distinguished Lecture Series.

Sebastian Copeland shows slides from his polar expeditions during his RENEW Distinguished Lecture on June 7. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By ROBBY JOHNSON

Published June 12, 2018

“While I got to deepen my personal understanding of the ice and our relationship to it, I couldn’t disassociate it with where we’re headed as a species.”
Sebastian Copeland, polar explorer, photographer

Sebastian Copeland has seen a side of the world that few ever get a chance to. The award-winning photographer has spent more than a decade traversing through cold, remote areas like the Arctic, Antarctica and the Greenland ice sheet.

Copeland entertained a crowd of scientists and members of the university community on Thursday with stories of his adventures across Earth’s largest bodies of ice. His talk in the Marquis Ballroom at the Hotel at the Lafayette was part of the UB Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water (RENEW) Distinguished Lecture Series. The event was also a highlight of the International Glaciological Society Symposium on Timescales, Processes and Glacier Dynamics, which brought together leading climate scientists from around the world.

The lecture focused heavily on Copeland’s experiences on the ice as he lugged around hundreds of pounds of equipment that helped ensure survival.

“If you’re thinking this looks like a donkey’s job, then I would say that’s pretty accurate,” he joked.”

Hauling that equipment proved fruitful, however, as his accounts of Arctic wilderness were accompanied by photos ranging from icebergs of a deep blue hue to landscape shots that depicted massive pressure ridges of ice. He had plenty of stories to tell, like an account of his first trip to the North Pole in 2009.

“It was an incredible experience, since it is one of the points on the planet where essentially all the time zones converge,” he said. “If you go around that point in a circle, you get to cross every time zone on the planet and you get to pick the time you call your family from.”

Copeland also talked about a 2,300-kilometer journey through the Greenland ice sheet via kite skiing, a sport that uses a kite to pull the skier. During that journey, there was a 24-hour period in which he traveled 595 kilometers, a world record for longest distance traveled by kite ski in a day.

As fun as kite skiing can be, he pointed out the toll it can take on the body over long distances, as well as the risk of injury. Just days into an Antarctic expedition, he fell while kite skiing and broke two ribs. The injury came just days after he had talked with a polar explorer friend who had had the same thing happen to him. Copeland remembered how his friend fought through the injury and continued with the expedition.

“I figured if I ever ran into him [after aborting the expedition], he’d have a day with me,” Copeland said laughingly. “So I swallowed a bunch of painkillers and proceeded with a couple of broken bones.”

When travelling through these isolated areas relatively untouched by human civilization, Copeland said he often felt drawn to the bigger picture. While these journeys were always fun, he said, he also wanted to bring to light such important issues as the climate crisis and the toll it’s taking on the areas he’s dedicated so much of his work to. He wanted to help protect a part of the world as special as the Arctic and Antarctic.

“While I got to deepen my personal understanding of the ice and our relationship to it, I couldn’t disassociate it with where we’re headed as a species,” he said.

This concern for the future was evident in his attempt at an unsupported expedition from Canada to the North Pole last year. The expedition, appropriately named “The Last Great March,” might have been the last such expedition, Copeland said.

“On the Arctic Sea, you have what amounts to a very humid environment because you’re walking essentially on the ocean,” he said. “That thin layer of ice [covering the ocean] is being threatened by warming temperatures.”

What used to be an ice depth of around 10 to 12 feet is now around 5 feet, making the possibility of another such expedition uncertain.

Copeland was forced to abort his unsupported mission to the North Pole after equipment failure during a bitter cold spell. He hopes to try again in 2020, but said Earth’s warming temperatures might make that impossible. The 30 percent loss of sea ice in the Arctic in just the past 30 years makes the region already extremely difficult to navigate, he said.

Richard Alley (left), Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and Sebastian Copeland take questions following the presentation.

Richard Alley (left), Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, and Sebastian Copeland take questions following Copeland's presentation. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Following his presentation, Copeland was joined by Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, for discussion and questions from the audience.

Much of the discussion stressed the severity of climate change and how science can work together with art for a common goal.

Copeland said photography can be a force to get people to take climate change seriously by generating emotion. By creating that emotional connection to these areas that are in danger, he said art like his can help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the rest of the world in a plea for change.

“As a photographer, I’m trying to help people fall in love with their world,” he said. “My position is to be a microphone and contend that this is important.”