—Florian Schulz, wildlife photographer
Of all the places Earthjustice works to protect, few are as iconic and misunderstood as the Arctic. At best, it conjures images of a distant, icy land sparsely inhabited by polar bears and walruses—beautiful, but removed from our everyday lives. At worst, it's a frozen wasteland devoid of life but rich in oil, a place to exploit at will. Nothing could be further from the truth. Florian Schulz's photography showcases the beauty of the Arctic and the threats the region faces from industrialization and climate change.
The Arctic is a surprisingly varied landscape teeming with life. Members of the Porcupine caribou herd, for example, forage in the mountain valleys of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where they find lush vegetation.
Caribou feed constantly, even during migration, in order to gain enough weight for the meager winter months.
Caribou form large herds on the coastal plains north of the Brooks Range.
Vegetation and free-flowing rivers crisscross the plains during the summer months in this, one of the most splendid stretches of wilderness left in America.
A strong bond exists between a mother caribou and her calf—I could sense it as I observed and photographed them. They recognize each other by smell and sound.
Another example of the Arctic's diverse wildlife, Dall sheep seek out both alpine meadows and steep mountain slopes to escape predators that cannot traverse such difficult terrain.
I photographed these Dall sheep in Denali National Park, just south of the Arctic.
Few people expect to see so many wetlands and lakes dotting the Arctic landscape, yet the region is home to countless lakes and some of the most productive wetland systems in the world.
These wetlands are near Teshekpuk Lake, a critical area for migrating bird species.
Huge numbers of black brants ply the waters of Teshekpuk Lake during the summer breeding season.
In winter, the birds migrate south to Baja California. Black brants are one of many bird species that depend on the Teshekpuk Lake area for their survival.
The waters off the Arctic—especially the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas—host a rich variety of marine life, such as beluga whales.
Belugas are social animals that often migrate, hunt and interact with each other in groups ranging from ten to several hundred. They are near the top of the Arctic marine food chain, feeding on fish, squid and crustaceans.
Sandpipers in Prince William Sound grow restless as they prepare to migrate north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
Millions of migratory birds depend on the region for their survival.
Things are changing rapidly in the Arctic. Oil companies are planning offshore oil development in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, two key marine habitats in the Arctic.
Conservation groups, such as Earthjustice, are working to limit offshore oil development in these waters until it is clear how to best protect them. For example, at present there are no known methods for cleaning up oil spills in an icy environment.
These oil platforms are what we could expect to see in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas if oil development projects proceed.
Lured by the potential of large profits, energy companies want to turn onshore Arctic lands into major oil- and gas-producing regions like the Prudhoe Bay oil fields west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Not surprisingly, pipelines, roads, and processing facilities are springing up in areas that are important to wildlife.
This pipeline, for example, crisscrosses a caribou migration route east of Prudhoe Bay.
Caribou cross the Dalton Highway, a 414-mile road that begins north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and ends at the town of Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean.
Studies have shown that calving female caribou generally try to avoid highways and pipelines, and these structures can impede caribou movement.
As oil development expands farther into wildlife habitat, human-wildlife interactions can take a tragic turn.
This grizzly bear became conditioned to garbage waste and was later killed.
Musk oxen gather at the edge of the oil town of Deadhorse, Alaska.
Development in the Arctic can displace native species while attracting predators like foxes that prey on local bird populations.
Oil and gas companies are not the only ones interested in exploiting the Arctic's natural resources.
Mining companies want to extract the region's mineral wealth as well, as they have done with the Red Dog Mine in the Western Arctic—the world's largest producer of zinc concentrate.
In addition to the threat of rapid industrialization, rising global temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels are starting to alter the Arctic landscape.
Sea ice, for example, is starting to break up earlier than usual, and scientists estimate that the Arctic Ocean could become ice-free during the summer in only 30 to 40 years.
Changing sea-ice conditions, including early break-ups and late freeze-ups, are affecting the ability of Inupiat hunters to provide food for their families.
One of the most recognizable faces of climate change, polar bears must swim longer distances to reach solid sea ice as warmer temperatures create larger stretches of open water.
If current warming trends continue, scientists estimate that polar bears may become extinct from most of their range in less than 100 years.
Impacts to the Arctic have ripple effects beyond its borders.
The rapid melting of Arctic glaciers in Greenland would raise sea levels and render low-lying areas such as Miami and New Orleans more vulnerable to coastal flooding.
The Arctic also serves as the "world's air conditioner" and helps regulate global temperatures.
Because of this, rapid changes to the Arctic would not only affect Arctic species, such as these kittiwakes, but also affect the climate and species in other parts of the world.
Earthjustice and other conservation groups have been working to protect the Arctic by curbing oil and gas development in sensitive regions.
These snowy owls will feed their chicks as much as possible during the short summer months before winter sets in.
Preserving Arctic lands will also help the survival of species that are endangered in the lower-48 states but enjoy healthy populations in the Arctic, such as this majestic gray wolf photographed in Denali National Park south of the Arctic among the fall colors of the tundra.
The grizzly bear is another species that has been drastically reduced in the continental U.S. but still thrives in Alaska and its Arctic regions.
This grizzly is patrolling the banks of the Arctic's Canning River.
The Arctic even serves as habitat for the peregrine falcon, whose population in the United States was almost decimated by the use of the pesticide DDT.
The Arctic was one of the last few areas with healthy populations of peregrines, and the species has now recovered throughout much of the United States after DDT was banned in the 1970s.
As part of its Arctic conservation efforts, outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia is helping to establish wildlife corridors in North America, where animals such as the caribou can roam freely.
As I watched this newly hatched arctic tern huddle close to its mother for warmth, I realized that the Arctic is a biological treasure—a place that doesn't just belong to us, but to our children and all future generations.
In order to protect the Arctic's flora and fauna, conservation groups such as Earthjustice are calling for a time-out on controversial development projects until we have a better scientific understanding of their environmental impacts on the Arctic.
The future of the Arctic will depend on the ability of lawmakers, Native peoples, conservation groups, businesses and the public to work together and establish a responsible management plan that protects this special region.
As I took this photo of caribou migrating along the Canning River under a setting Arctic sun, I could sense that we are at a crossroads: the future of the Arctic is in our hands. I have hope we will do the right thing.
Please help Earthjustice and its partners protect the magnificent Arctic by urging Congress to pass meaningful climate change legislation.
Reducing greenhouse gases while encouraging the development of clean energy will help ensure that the Arctic is preserved for many generations to come.