How Wilderness Can Change You

You may view all of my Arctic images in the Photography section of this website.

700 miles from the top of the world, our ship got stuck in the ice… and it was amazing.

700 miles from the top of the world, our ship got stuck in the ice… and it was amazing.

ARCTIC CIRCLE RESIDENCY - SVALBARD, NORWAY

In June of 2019, I was one of thirty-two international artists, scientists and journalists aboard the tall-ship Antigua. My proposed project for the two-week journey in and around Svalbard was in two parts.

First, I wanted to document the bloom of a particular kind of algae called Emiliania Huxleyi (a coccolithophore found all around the world). This algae was of interest to me because of its role in cloud formation, carbon capture, and the release of the gas Dimethyl Sulfide — a gas which has been shown to be an olfactory indicator for many marine animals. EHux is an important part of the arctic food cycle. When EHux blooms happen, they are fed upon by phytoplankton, and then fish, and then bigger fish, and then birds, whales and more. Therefore, some species have evolved to seek the smell of DMS because they know there will be food available. Often, birds can pick up on molecules in the parts per trillion.

Before I left for the Arctic, I discussed with a few scientists (NOAA, NCAR, Bigelow Labs) the role that DMS gas might be contributing to marine life eating plastic. DMS is not only emitted from EHux. Anything floating in the water will become coated in a “biofilm” and can contain the enticing smell of DMS gas. Basically, if it smells like food and looks like food, it is more plausible to be eaten by ocean life. There is still research being done on this topic.

My second project was to document and collect plastics that had traveled north via the thermohaline current. Because my work often uses plastic as a symbol for humanity’s “mania,” to find it in remote regions is a symbolic representation of how far our consumption sickness has spread.

I went to the arctic in a certain state of mind. As the world struggles to deal with pollution, climate change, and increasing aggression in many ways, I had become somewhat dark in my outlook and practice, and unbeknownst to me, I was quite comfortable there.

Thankfully, the arctic changed me.

It is not that I have lost the heavy weight of sensitivity that allows me to see damage to the planet around every corner. It is not that I have lost my drive and ambition to be a helpful force for change, and using my work as a tool. It is not that I did not mourn melting glaciers, that I did not become angry, that I did not cry. I did all of those things.

Ancient ice = ancient gases = ancient organisms that exhaled those ancient gases = ancient life that made the organisms that exhaled those ancient gases = amazing planet of which I am a part.

Ancient ice = ancient gases = ancient organisms that exhaled those ancient gases = ancient life that made the organisms that exhaled those ancient gases = amazing planet of which I am a part.

What changed is that the Arctic made me slow down.

It made me sit quietly, it demanded to be observed, it asked to be heard. The groans and cracks of aging ice were not seen on a screen, they were terrifyingly close. The snapping bubbles of escaping ancient gas were a cacophony of voices from another time, very much alive. The crushed piles of moraine made clear a power of nature that could care less about silly human squabbles, ignorant leaders, bottom lines, or even the notion of conquest. I saw Arctic foxes, terns that traveled thousands of miles, resilient plants of humble beauty, gentle young reindeer, whales, walruses and polar bears. I sat and watched the light change for hours on the surface of the water. I watched how the clouds formed, thickened, thinned, and disappeared. I studied the reflections on the water. I watched live drone footage of brilliant white sea worms, anemones, and seaweed on the bottom of a fjord. I stayed in the cold when my body was frozen. I hiked until I was exhausted. I slept little. I missed the night sky and learned to appreciate stars. I questioned my beliefs. I was rendered insignificant in the most peaceful and precious way. I fell in love with the planet more deeply, the way one does as they get to know someone more fully.

No, I never saw the blooms…and yes, I did find plastic. But in the end, my projects only got me onto the ship. The real project was learning how to be quiet, blessed, present, and full of wonder — in essence, remembering the true nature that lies in each of us.

I hope that this series of photos capture the absolute ego-crushing, soul-reckoning, spectacular beauty that is our Arctic.

-Regan Rosburg

Regan Rosburg