By Michael Benson, Co-Founder of Photo London and Director, Prix Pictet
It is incredibly difficult to make compelling photographs of the Arctic icecap. The compromised beauty of the place has attracted photographers by the score but all too often the results are pretty confections that collapse into cliché. Timo Lieber’s photographs skilfully avoid that trap. They are beautiful objects, of course they are, but they also have something important to say about the environmental disaster that is unfolding at an alarming rate in the polar regions. The fact that Timo’s narrative is underpinned by a clear understanding of the science involved punches home the importance of what he has to say. It is a story that we ignore at our peril.
THAW is more than just a photography project – it is a collaboration between photography and science. I visited the Arctic polar ice cap, working alongside several scientists who study it, and was overwhelmed by the scale of the landscape and the enormity of associated problems. All of which I brought together in THAW.
THAW highlights the rapidly growing number of blue lakes and rivers that form on the Greenland ice cap – one of the most inaccessible areas on earth. Here, in the pristine landscape, stripped to the bare minimum of colours and shapes, the dramatic impact of climate change is more obvious than anywhere else in the world.
The Greenland ice sheet is not just a stark and frigid wilderness perched at the top of the globe; it is a vast frozen reservoir of fresh water that offsets seven metres of coastal flooding around the planet. In the past two decades, that reservoir has shifted from a steady state in balance with its climate, to one in which it is now losing an estimated 380,000,000,000 tonnes of ice annually. As Arctic temperatures continue to rise, the ice sheet loses out, primarily, through increased surface melt and runoff into the ocean. But this drives a second, more insidious process: vast azure melt lakes form across its surface and are now spreading further inland than ever before. These lakes rapidly drain through the ice sheet, lubricating its bed, causing the ice to flow faster towards the ocean where it melts and calves icebergs. We now understand that these processes work in tandem, that the ice sheet is being depleted at an accelerating rate, thereby raising global sea-levels by up to 1.2 mm each year.
My work as a London-based aerial photographer has allowed me to have my own distinctive take on our world from above. I am inspired both by the environment and the interplay of elements that form some of nature's most incredible shapes and patterns. While many of my earlier works show the beauty of vast, untouched landscapes, this current work explores the human interaction with nature and the complexity of its impact.
The environment is a key ingredient in all my photographic work. Having travelled to the Arctic numerous times and seeing the rate of change there, I had the idea of creating the new series: THAW.
The project was two years in the planning, with the assistance of Prof Alun Hubbard of Aberystwyth University and Prof Julian Dowdeswell and Dr Poul Christoffersen at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.