“A Sense of Real Fear”: Climate Change Photog Katie Orlinsky on Documenting Arctic Melt

Posted by on Thursday August 30, 2018 | Photojournalism, Photos In The News

National Geographic, Katie Orlinsky, Arctic, permafrost, climate change
© Katie Orlinsky/National Geographic The Batagaika Crater in the town of Batagay, Russia, is known as the "hell crater" or the "gateway to the underworld.” Over 300 feet deep and more than half a mile long, the depression is one of the largest in the world. Scientists believe it started forming in the 1960s when the permafrost under the area began to thaw after nearby forests were cleared.

All photos © Katie Orlinsky/National Geographic The Batagaika Crater in the town of Batagay, Russia, is known as the "hell crater" or the "gateway to the underworld.” Over 300 feet deep and more than half a mile long, the depression is one of the largest in the world. Scientists believe it started forming in the 1960s when the permafrost under the area began to thaw after nearby forests were cleared.

Photographer Katie Orlinsky has been documenting the impact of climate change for four years, but says what she recently witnessed on assignment for National Geographic frightened her like no other assignment has. National Geographic sent Orlinsky and writer Craig Welch to northern Russia and Siberia for a look at permafrost: the layer of ground below the soil that (usually) remains frozen solid throughout the year. This year, however scientist Nikita Zimov and his father, Sergey, drilled into the ground and found soft mush where the earth should be frozen solid. Welch writes, “For the first time in memory, ground that insulates deep Arctic permafrost simply did not freeze in winter.” Story editor Sadie Quarrier explains that National Geographic plans to publish Orlinsky’s and Welch’s full story in fall 2019. However, “The pressing nature of their discoveries made our coverage of this specific aspect of story more urgent, which is why we decided to file a digital story just days after they returned from the field.”

During her three weeks of fieldwork, Orlinsky traveled to the Batagaika Crater, a 300-foot-deep impression where scientists can examine a wall of permafrost, and are now looking for clues about its thawing.

When National Geographic released the online story, Orlinsky took to social media to share her shocked impressions.

From her years of studying the effect of climate change, she says, she’s gained an understanding of the issue “on an intellectual level.”

“However I had never really felt, in my bones, the weight of it all. I had never felt a sense of real fear, for myself, for those I love most, and for all of humanity. But that was what rushed over me when I finished working in Siberia, my biggest shoot yet for a long term assignment I am doing with writer Craig Welch for National Geographic,” she wrote on social media.

Orlinsky says the earth may be changing sooner than anyone predicted:
“And for me, something already has changed. Standing inside the Batagaika Crater on my last shooting day, watching and listening to the earth as it tumbled down towards me, has affected me in ways I have a difficult time articulating. I wish I could just take everyone there, especially those in political power, to experience it first-hand. But I am grateful that at the very least, I can share my photos.”

Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic, permafrost, climate change

© Katie Orlinsky/National Geographic. The Batagaika Crater is one of the few places to see a wall of permafrost—and whether it’s thawing—up close. Scientists study the area for clues about climate change in the Arctic and how it may affect the rest of the planet.

Quarrier notes that Orlinsky’s photos from Batagaika “exceeded my expectations.” “We had seen almost no pictures of the Crater and almost pulled the plug on that extra trip due cost, permissions, fire/safety threats and logistics,” she says, but Orlinsky was “determined,” Quarrier says. “I’m so glad she persevered as it really paid off. The light was epic, and she now has a visual record that few have of this crater, which is a place being studied by scientists for clues about climate change.”

You can find the full article, “Some Arctic Ground No Longer Freezing—Even in Winter” and several of Orlinsky’s photos, on NationalGeographic.com.

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