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The Melt: ECO Interviews Kerry Koepping

An Interview with Kerry Koepping, Director of the Arctic Arts Project

The Arctic is changing, but most of us never see it. Sure, we see the headlines from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the images of stranded polar bears, and the occasional stock clip of a calving glacier, but the truth is that the majority of the Arctic remains unpopulated, remote, and beyond the direct observation of most people.

The Arctic Arts Project is working to change that. The project is a collaboration of seven of the most celebrated and talented environmental photographers of our time, and the photography they are bringing back—from stunning stills to dramatic video— documents climate change in the Arctic in a way that temperature graphs and satellite photos simply cannot match.

The seven photographers—Joshua Holko, Carsten Egevang, Mark Muench, Kerry Koepping, Andy Williams, Iurie Belegurschi, and Örvar A. Þorgeirsson—form a unified mission to promote visual literacy and understanding of climate change to the world at large. They have presented at venues ranging from the Arctic Circle Summit to educational outreach events in their home communities.

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Photo credit: Kerry Koepping.


The project’s mission is to educate, inspire, and provide perspective on the kinetic evolution of the Arctic on a global scale. Together, these seven are presenting a visual body of work that reveals a dramatic perspective of climate change in the Arctic. ECO spoke with Kerry Koepping, director of the Arctic Arts Project, about their 2016 mission to Greenland.

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Photo credit: Kerry Koepping.


ECO: What are some of the most common questions your team gets about your project?

Koepping: What is change? Is it environmental? Social? Political? What is the Arctic? Is it just a large block of melting ice? When will the Arctic be inhabited? Do you really notice change?


ECO: What is your response?

Koepping: I’m not sure if we are more surprised at the questions or whether those asking the questions are more surprised at our answers. But one thing is for sure: change is constant, and it is very visual. The most common question we get is “How can Arctic climate change be relevant to me? Does it even matter?”

When asked this question, I think of a quote from the Scottish-American naturalist and explorer, John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Muir’s words are confirmed by the work at our project’s core. Climate change is shared in complex scientific and visual cues that reach well beyond the Arctic. The Arctic’s indigenous cultures aren’t the only ones effected, and the issues are not limited by geographical boundaries. They are, however, potential roadmaps to the future of human existence, and that is relevant to all of us.


ECO: What have you seen on your visits to the Arctic?

Koepping: In the summer of 2016, our team experienced firsthand what we are calling The Melt. The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the global average (a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification). With average high temperatures in Scoresby Sund in East Greenland at a record 8.7°C for August (the normal being 3.2°C), our groups played witness to some of the most dramatic melting ice visuals ever recorded.

There was a calculated one trillion metric tons of melt in Greenland from 2013 to 2015, and 2016 saw the largest melt ever, an estimated 450 billion metric tons of freshwater melt in one year.

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Photo credit: Kerry Koepping.


ECO: Those are some big numbers. How can you communicated this kind of change?

Koepping: Through diverse guest experiences that create compelling storylines across multiple devices and channels, we can communicate the relevance of science to the world at large. Using documentary style visuals that don’t just push information outward, but instead transport the viewer to the Arctic, allowing them to experience change as never before possible.


ECO: What do you mean by transporting the viewer to the Arctic?

Koepping: Through emerging experiential tools such as 360° panoramic video, virtual reality, real-time social media experiences, and 4-dimensional travel immersion, we educate and inspire. Our team of communicators is faced with the challenge of bringing about global awareness through the visual. We look to evoke reason and empathetic dialogue between the scientific, artistic, and educational communities and bring perspective on the real and present kinetic evidence that exists in the Arctic. By merging experiential imagery from all segments, we hope to generate understanding and reflection to the world at large as to what change in the Arctic really looks like and how it becomes relevant to their own existence.


ECO: But what is there to see besides breaks in the snowy expanse?

Koepping: The Arctic is not just a melting ice cube. It is experiencing a dramatic transition to a new landscape. With the decline of the ice caps, science has seen dramatic evidence indicating that with the melt comes greater seismic, geothermal, and volcanic activity as evidenced in Siberia, Iceland, and even Chile in the southern hemisphere.

Also, the Arctic region has three main types of evolving vegetation: polar deserts in the north, boreal forests in the south, and tundra in between. Rising temperatures are activating a northward expansion of the boreal forests into the permafrost- laden tundra, and of tundra into the polar desert.

Many Arctic lifeforms rely on the sea’s biological productivity and the presence of sea ice. Thousands of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species like the polar bear, walrus, and narwhal for life on and around the sea ice. But because of climate change, that ice cover has been changing rapidly in both extent and thickness and shrinking far too quickly for these species to adapt.


ECO: How does science play into your work?

Koepping: Science is the powerful core to what we communicate. It establishes relevance to the visuals and provides structure to the team’s mission. By focusing on both the diversity and complexity of change in the Arctic, we hope to inspire and educate the public while motivating the world at large to reflect on their own relevance to climate change.


ECO: What have you learned about the relevance of climate change to individuals?

Koepping: First of all, changes in the species’ habitats, availability, and unpredictable ice conditions are making the indigenous feel like strangers in their own land. Secondly, societal changes within the Arctic’s indigenous have increased their vulnerability to climate-induced changes, greatly reducing their ability to adapt to changing climactic conditions. This trend is reflected throughout the indigenous communities of the world—not just the Arctic.

But it’s not just indigenous communities. We are all ice-dependent species. Consider this: The total annual domestic water use for France is 6.2 billion cubic meters, while the freshwater melt from Greenlandic glaciers is currently 1.2 billion cubic meters daily. That means that the Greenland melt can meet the French annual domestic water needs in a single week. That’s how vast this change is. Of course, as humans, we don’t like change much. We fear it. We avoid it. So, what do we do? Well, we can either use the science and all of these available communication channels to see things differently or we can all get further behind in addressing it. Arctic matters are real and present…and change is relevant to us all.


ECO: And what have you learned about yourself?

Koepping: After going on these excursions, I feel connected to human existence from the environment’s perspective. When you are in this changing Arctic landscape, you have a very real spiritual connection to the Earth because you see things happening so fast and of such a magnitude. I feel a real responsibility to communicate that sense of connection back to the lower latitudinal countries. That connection, when I see it made on the other side, drives me and other members of our team to go back to the Arctic. In fact, this spring, I will be back in Greenland to interact with Inuit hunters, document how has their life changed over the last 25 years, and capture a winter story line as opposed to our previous summer experiences.

To find out more about the Arctic Arts Project, visit http://arcticartsproject.com.

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