26 October 2019

Photo Essay

The great white melt

The Arctic has existed in a fragile equilibrium for millennia. But no longer

By Fernando Moleres


The burning of fossil fuels on a massive scale has lit the fuse of global warming, with scientists warning of unsustainable rises in global temperatures unless drastic action is taken to combat the phenomenon.

In coming years, the extent of ice cover in the summer months will continue to shrink. Melting glaciers and retreating ice caps are threatening low lying areas and small island nations.

Despite all efforts and worthy commitments, by mid-century the planet may have warmed by 2 degrees Celsius, a critical level that could cause irreversible environmental changes. The Arctic could be ice-free in the summer months, allowing shipping and other infrastructure to advance into fragile arctic environments, and oil and gas companies to exploit formerly inaccessible resources.

The challenges facing the planet require a complete transformation in the way humans produce, consume and distribute energy.

Icebergs, broken off from the Jakobshavn Glacier, float in Disko Bay after travelling through the Ilulissat Icefjord. Annually, the glacier drains about 6.5 per cent of the Greenland ice sheet and is responsible for about 10 per cent of all Greenland’s icebergs.

Painted wooden-clad fishermen’s houses in Qeqertarsuaq village.

A man trains his dogs for a forthcoming dog-sledding competition. Even in the winter, they cannot go far out onto the frozen sea because the ice is no longer thick enough to hold their weight.

Fishermen manoeuvre their boats among icebergs broken off from the Jakobshavn Glacier.

Icebergs floating towards Disko Bay through the Ilulissat Icefjord.

The Zion Church, built in the late 18th century, for the evangelical Lutheran population (the predominant religion of the non-inuit population). Ilulissat is the third biggest town in Greenland, with more than 5,000 inhabitants. 

Vatnajokull, a massive glacier that covers around eight per cent of Iceland. Its many glacial tongues drain the ice sheet into the south-east coast near Skaftafell. The island loses about 11 billion tonnes of ice per year as the glaciers melt.

The increasing rate of melting from the Greenland ice sheet could trigger a rise in global sea levels could faster than previously thought, endangering the habitat of the roughly 150 million people who are living on land – which is just a metre above sea level.

Vatnajokull, a massive glacier that covers around eight per cent of Iceland.

The Fjallsarlon Glacier, which ends in a lagoon off the south-east of Iceland.

Icebergs, broken off from the Jakobshavn Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq), floating in Disko Bay towards Qequertasuaq island.

Modern igloos in an Arctic hotel. Ilulissat is the West Greenlandic word for iceberg. With a population of 4,541 as of 2013, it is the third-largest settlement in the country.

The east coast of Greenland in June as the ice sea begins to melt. It has been suggested that by 2050 climate change will result in the Arctic Sea being completely clear of ice during the summer months.

Icebergs, broken off from the Jakobshavn Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq), floating towards Disko Bay.

An aerial view of the snow capped peaks that form the Greenland ice sheet.

A huge crack cleaves the sea ice off Disko Bay into huge floating islands. Locals claim that such an occurrence is a recent phenomenon, which didn’t happen 20 years ago.

A fisherman returns from a trip onto the frozen sea ice in Disko Bay dragging a catch of halibut behind him. The trawlers in the background will be trapped in the winter ice until the spring thaw.

The Zion Church, built in the late 18th Century. The boats are iced in during the winter months, but it has become increasingly dangerous to venture onto the sea ice in winter time to fish, because the ice is now too thin in places.

Icebergs in Disko Bay. 

A pack of dogs pulls a fisherman and his sledge as he heads out into Disko Bay. Even in the frozen winter, they cannot go far out onto the sea because the ice is no longer thick enough to hold the weight of a man – and to fall into the water would mean almost certain death.

Icebergs floating towards Disko Bay through the Ilulissat Icefjord.

Increasing temperatures have led to greater numbers of icebergs in summertime. The glacier itself moves at a speed of about 40 metres each day, and has doubled its rate of flow in the last ten years.

Sledge dogs, tied up separately to prevent them fighting each other, wait in the snow for their next trip, or meal. There are around 2,000 dogs in Ilulissat – only a third of the number that existed here in 1980.

Icebergs in Disko Bay after travelling through the Ilulissat Icefjord.

Top: Crosses marking graves in a cemetery in Ilulissat.
Middle: Icebergs floating towards Disko Bay.
Bottom: Ilulissat. Tourism is now the town’s main source of income.

A man rests in his house. The houses are warm and comfortable – a stark change from two generations ago, when nomadic hunters lived in animal skin tents during the summer.

Ole Christiansen, a fisherman of Danish descent, smoking a pipe. In the background the sea ice is reflected in a window.

Dog sledding in the sea of Disko bay during winter time.

 

Fernando Moleres was born in Bilbao, in northern Spain, in 1963. He is a self-taught photographer. For over 25 years he has been photographing current affairs and issues relating to human rights.

After numerous trips to Sierra Leone, where Moleres documented the lives of juveniles in the country’s notoriously harsh prison system, Fernando founded a charity – Free Minor Africa – which tried to raise awareness of the often brutal experiences of young offenders who have been incarcerated for the smallest of misdemeanours.

Fernando has won numerous awards, including three World Press Awards (1998, 2002 and 2011), the Tim Hetherington Grant in 2012 and a W. Eugene Smith Grant in 1999.

All Photographs by Fernando Moleres/Panos Pictures