Published: June 2007 Vanishing Sea Ice
Life at the Edge
On the frontier of a frozen ocean, rising temperatures imperil wildlife whose survival depends on ice.
By Paul Nicklen

On a frigid afternoon in May, I slipped through a crack in the sea ice and dropped into the Arctic Ocean. The icy water hit my face and neoprene-clad head so hard I thought I would vomit. I was diving just south of Lancaster Sound, off the northern tip of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The water was 29 degrees (-2°C), about as cold as seawater gets before it freezes.

My teeth clenched the regulator as I tried to fight back nausea. Soon my breaths slowed, my head numbed to the shock, and I swam down into the blackness. At one point I looked back up at the ice, expecting it to appear as it most often does this early in the season—blue, featureless, lifeless. But something wasn’t right.

The ice was stained green and brown. It moved. I blinked and checked my depth. I tried to make sure I wasn’t suffering vertigo, which can be deadly to a diver working alone under the three-foot-thick (one meter) roof of ice. Then it hit me: It wasn’t ice at all—I was watching a massive cloud of amphipods, tiny shrimplike crustaceans, as they fed on phytoplankton that grow on the underside of the ice in spring when the sun returns to the Arctic. I was seeing the foundation of the ecosystem, the combination of ice and minute life-forms upon which all the bigger animals—polar bears, whales, birds, and seals—depend.

I’ve lived in the Canadian Arctic all my life and have spent most of my career photographing the edge where ice meets open sea. When I began working, sea ice seemed invulnerable: Even in the warmest months much ice remained. Ice is not just a landscape. It is part of the biology of every creature that lives in this frozen vastness. Year-round, but especially in spring, polar bears roam and hunt on the ice. Seals rest and give birth on the ice. Massive bowhead whales arrive like squadrons of submarines to feed on amphipods and copepods. Beluga whales and narwhals join them and chase arctic cod, which hide as larvae in finger-thin channels of ice. An Arctic without ice is unimaginable.

Scarcely ten years later, things have changed. The Poles are melting at an alarming rate; as global warming grinds on, the possibility of an ice-free Arctic, at least during the summer, creeps closer each day. Lancaster Sound, one of the most productive marine habitats in the world and the eastern portion of the famed Northwest Passage, may soon witness a new chapter in maritime history: The sound and areas around it may see a significant increase in shipping as the ice diminishes, bringing large freighters and tankers into a region they rarely traveled before. Some scientists even believe the Arctic will be void of summer ice, dooming species such as polar bears to extinction in less than a century. This is one of the most disturbing predictions I’ve heard.

The photographs here represent a decade’s work. They embody my love of ice, and of the blue-white world it nourishes. The photos also carry a message, one that I understood with sudden clarity that May day as I watched amphipods flit along the ice and heard the clicks and squeaks of approaching whales: If global temperatures continue rising, the ice will likely disappear. An Arctic without ice would be like a garden without soil.