“I was obsessed with water.” Sebastian Copeland admits, “to the extent where I even contemplated stealing my partner’s water at times. I was thinking maybe I could just go and steal a gulp.” Desperation can do funny things to human beings, and Copeland discovered a deep layer of it during his 26-day, 404-mile trek across Australia’s Simpson Desert this year. “To try and understand what’s going on around the world when people are really with their backs against the wall,” he tells me, “is to begin to understand the nature of conflicts—because this is real, this is what happens.” Copeland, the photographer, environmentalist, author and explorer, has travelled into some of the most remote, isolated, and unforgiving landscapes on earth to peer inwards towards the raw core of humanity.
Copeland is an artist—a renowned and multi-award-winning environmental photographer, whose stunning photo books have boasted forewords and introductions from no lesser figures than Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Richard Branson.
“Art can make the link between the heart and mind and enable people to think from the standpoint of emoting first. My role as a photographer and an adventurer are sort of tied in my mission,” Copeland tells me. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment in the story of our development. It’s one that calls to task everyone and their skillset.”
Copeland has travelled to both the North and South Pole to document the livid beauty and haunting, thawing desolation as the world transforms into a much warmer, and very different place. The environment that human cultures have emerged from over the last dozen millennia or so is changing rapidly. His photos capture the shifting nerve center of a transforming planet, yet the tendrils of that change stretch far beyond the icy vastness: “In Syria we look at the regime of Bashar al-Assad as the trigger for the uprising there,” Copeland points out. “But it would be foolish not to consider that six years of severe drought preceded that uprising. From 2005 to 2011, Syria experienced unprecedented drought, which essentially destroyed 60% of its agricultural land and killed 80% of its cattle. People are a lot less likely to go to war when they have enough food and water to feed their families. When that sense of security is taken away from them, you start to watch social systems disintegrate.”
Copeland describes the situation with stark clarity: “We’re running out of resources. Our planet essentially loses 10% of its calories [food production] and 7% of its hydrology [fresh water resources] for every 1°C rise in temperature. Right now we are 1°C warmer than we were in 1880. By definition, we have lost about 10% of global calories, and 7% of water. And if the trend continues, as it’s predicted to, the more people are going to push to areas where they’re trying to survive, and the more stress that’s going to be placing on the social order.”
Gusts of wind crackle through the receiver while I speak to Copeland over the phone during his vacation in Maui. “The weather is amazing,” he tells me. “There’s lots of wind, and I’m a windsurfer, so I’m very happy.” Yet his description of the rapidly changing arctic is little short of sobering, “You no longer have the possibility of walking to the North Pole and back overland because of the condition of the ice,” Copeland explains, “it melts too rapidly. It’s the spring thaw that comes much quicker than it used to, and the summer periods extend in length.
The multi-year ice—the ice that generally survives the summer thaw—is practically gone. It used to be between 50% and 80% multi-year ice only 30 years ago, and now it’s only between 8% and 3%.”
Ice melting in the far reaches may seem like a remote problem, but Copeland stresses its relevance to us all, “It means that there are very powerful forces at play. The incidence of melting has profound consequences on geopolitics. What’s going to happen in the world in the next 30 years—you need to look no further than the poles. If you see great rates of change, which we are witnessing with no doubt, that’s going to have an effect on other places,” Copeland says plainly. “Global warming in Antarctica means the ice has a melt factor that is threatening ocean rise. 80% of the world lives within 100 miles of a coast—it’s not by accident. If you look at just the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam, which is the second-largest exporter of rice, the number-one calorie around the world. That region is going to be completely flooded within a half century.”
In an America still reeling from the ascent of the President-Elect Donald Trump, the words of Copeland and other experts take on a haunting quality when juxtaposed against recent campaign rhetoric, “You are starting to examine what a real immigration problem—a real climate refugee problem is going to look like.” Copeland continues, “Right now, everyone around the world is up in arms about the concept of refugees. The reality is, for the most part, half of them already are just climate refugees. There’s 16 million people around the world seeking asylum, and by the end of the century, we’re going to have at least 300 million displaced.”
“Displacement” of another kind is something oft confused by climate skeptics like Trump and other members of his future administration, for while floating ice has approximately the same displacement as melted ice (salt water affects the equation), the main problem is that warmer water (by definition) is made up of molecules with more energy than cold water. These energetic molecules create a wider distance between each other, and hence more volume, in a phenomena called ‘thermal expansion.’ Thus the sea level rises as more of the ice caps melt into the heating ocean.
Water is thus our elixir and our panacea; our nightmare and our curse. Copeland has a clear perception of both the profundity and the banality of H20. Returning to his greedy cravings in the Simpson Desert, he admits, “The irony was that I really obsessed over being able to drink a big glass of cold water every morning. I was thinking when I get home this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to commit to a big glass of water every morning and I’m going to appreciate what that means because some people don’t have it,” he tells me wistfully. “And guess what? When I got home, I basically turned on the tap, poured myself a glass of water—and a glass of water was just a bloody glass of water—no more, no less. It had completely lost its relevance, because it was no longer associated with this profound, primary need for it, because now I have plenty of it. And that’s the disconnect that we have with people around the world for whom that reality is a daily struggle.”
All images from Arctica: The Vanishing North, available here.