‘This is the cleanest air you will breathe’

Updated 8:40 AM EST, Fri January 29, 2016

Story highlights

Photographer Anna Filipova spent a month at an Arctic research station

The scientists there are contributing to our understanding of climate change

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and e-mail.

(CNN) —  

To take photos at the Ny-Ålesund research station in Arctic Norway, about as close to the North Pole as human settlements come, you’ll first need to know a couple things.

One: You’ll have to be quick. Your breath could mess up the atmospheric measurements that are helping scientists around the world better understand climate change. (Plus, if you’re there in October, as photographer Anna Filipova was, you’ll have very little light anyway.)

And two: You’ll need a gun … because polar bears.

“It’s an extremely hostile environment,” Filipova said. “When you arrive there you have to know how to use a gun.”

Photographer Anna Filipova
Anna Filipova
Photographer Anna Filipova

Despite these obstacles and others, Filipova, a photographer who lives in Paris and focuses on natural environments of the far north, spent a month in Ny-Ålesund last year. She not only lived to tell the tale – without any polar bear sightings – but emerged with striking photographs of the scientific research that occurs there.

This is a place where the air, according to the scientists she met, is “the cleanest air you will breathe” – and where vital measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide are taken.

These readings inform our understanding of just how quickly humans are warming the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down forests, moving carbon out of the ground and into the air. It also gives researchers a unique view of the Arctic, where warming is occurring at about twice the rate of the rest of the world. “You don’t have to have any degree to see that global warming is something that’s happening to the landscape,” she said.

Filipova’s images of the remote research station, which is one of the northernmost settlements in the world, are purposefully monochromatic. The photographer wanted to highlight the isolation she felt – to hint at what it’s like to stay alone in a cabin that’s shaken violently by winds at night. To see almost no sunshine at all on some October days.

“I wanted to emphasize the feeling of isolation because this is what I felt,” she said. “There are 15 people at the settlement, but most of the time you don’t see anybody.”

At first glance, “everything is white” at the research station, she told me. But when you look closer you notice that the fall light casts blue, purple and red hues on the landscape.

“It’s true that in Scandinavian languages they have many words for the snow and the different nuances of the snow,” she said. “But, there, you really start to see the blue of the snow, and I wanted to emphasize these things. I’d never seen it. I’d been to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Norway, Finland, Iceland. And I never had seen these colors.”

She had to be quick in grabbing these images. To photograph one particular atmospheric sensor, she only had one minute, she told me, because of concerns her breath would alter the instrument’s readings. (Scientists record exactly when people go near the sensors and for how long, she said.) A researcher always accompanied her with a gun, she said, to avoid potentially dangerous polar bear encounters. And by late October, the sun was gone.

“One of the last days when the sun disappeared … the sky was absolutely purple,” she said. “Like red and purple. It was amazing for me to see it.”

In Filipova’s view, and mine, we owe a great deal of gratitude to the scientists who work at Ny-Ålesund, on the island of Svalbard, in these extreme-if-beautiful conditions. Their research projects last years, not weeks, she told me, and there’s virtually no social life at the camp. Yet they are contributing to our understanding of climate change.

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The photographer’s monthlong stay ended only a few weeks before the COP21 climate change summit in Paris, where world leaders agreed to a monumental deal to try to cut carbon emissions and limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Filipova told me the scientists she met weren’t overly enthusiastic about the prospect of that deal, though.

“They said changes have to be much more drastic,” she said.

Regardless, Filipova said she was inspired by their dedication to the science and their enthusiasm for documenting environmental conditions in such a harsh location.

And, for the record, a month was long enough for her.

“To be honest with you,” she said, “at the end, I was so happy to be coming home!”

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Anna Filipova is a photographer based between Paris and London. You can follow her on Twitter.