Chris Linder Photography - Science and Natural History Storytelling

Project » The Big Thaw

The Big Thaw

The Big Thaw takes readers on a journey of adventure and discovery one of the most inaccessible and hauntingly beautiful places on Earth—the Arctic.  Through evocative images by a professional conservation photographer and essays by leading writers and scientists, The Big Thaw tells the story of how vast stores of ancient carbon stored in permafrost soils are thawing and returning to the modern carbon cycle… and how a dedicated team of scientists and students is struggling to understand it.

Siberia’s Kolyma region is Earth’s largest watershed that is completely underlain by permafrost (permanently frozen ground).  During the Pleistocene, this region was a thriving tundra steppe ecosystem.  Mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, and wild horses walked the land.  Their remains, and the grasses they nourished, became compacted and frozen into the permafrost soil.  When these mega-herbivores died out, a boggy taiga forest replaced the grasslands.  But buried just below the surface is 1,500 Gigatons of carbon—more than four times the amount of carbon stored in all of the forests on earth…  a carbon bomb waiting to go off.

In the last few decades, global climate change has led to unprecedented temperature rise in the Arctic.  Soil that had been locked in the permafrost ‘freezer’ is now thawing, releasing Pleistocene-era carbon back into the streams, lakes, and rivers.  There, hungry microbes devour it, releasing carbon dioxide and methane gases as a byproduct.  These potent greenhouse gases, added to the high levels already present in the atmosphere, fuel a dangerous feedback cycle.

A team of researchers and undergraduate students has been studying the Arctic region every summer since 2008 through a project called Polaris.  Braving endless hordes of mosquitoes, quicksand, and extreme temperatures, the Polaris science team is following the carbon—from the permafrost to the streams, lakes, rivers, and ultimately the Arctic Ocean—in a quest to unravel one of the biggest questions facing science—and humanity.

I have documented seven expeditions to Siberia and the Alaskan Arctic to document the students, the science, and the environment using still photographs and audio/video recordings.

Resources

In the news

Funding

NSF logo

The Polaris project was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Woods Hole Research Center, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.