Life on the edge: Snapshots from some of Earth’s most extreme environments
India is reeling from floods caused by unprecedented rainfall in regions ranging from Chiplun in Maharashtra to the national capital, which shut some metros stations this past week as water levels rose. Parts of China, Germany and the US have been devastated by record-breaking floods, wildfires and heat waves. Cherrapunji, once the wettest place on earth, is dealing with drought; and new records have been set by soaring temperatures in Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and Dubai. And new studies show that, for the first time, the Amazon rainforest has gone from being a carbon sink to carbon emitter, as a result of increased drought and of the fires set to clear forest land for agriculture.
At this point in the climate crisis, the news is alarming but no longer unexpected. “Climate models show that, if not for the recent decades of high greenhouse gas concentrations and emissions, these extreme weather events would not have occurred,” says NH Ravindranath, a retired professor at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, who has contributed to assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “One of the concerns, however, is that the frequency of these events seems to be exceeding climate change projections. We might have been too conservative in our estimations.”
The frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea, for instance, has risen by 52% over two decades according to a recent report by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, something that was not predicted.
Technology is being leveraged as humans try to adapt to these changes, Ravindranath says. “In industries such as agriculture and energy, you can modify systems. You can choose to grow hardier crops, and you can try to adopt new ways of producing energy.”
What you can’t do, he adds, is manage the natural environment and whole ecosystems. “There’s nothing you can do about the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the ecologies of the north-eastern states.” Those can only be restored, repaired, allowed to heal.
As the world continues in its efforts to scale back the climate crisis and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels (something that is still possible), it is important to acknowledge the impact of human actions on these distant, delicately poised worlds. As the polar ice sheets melt, for instance, they are losing their ability to reflect sunlight back into space; and Antarctica is also seeing unseasonal rain instead of snow, which is killing penguin chicks whose nests are well insulated against cold but not against water. As the sea waters warm, the storms are getting worse, but rising temperatures are also disrupting breeding cycles.
Here are accounts from photographers, documentary filmmakers and a scientist who have spent extended periods in some of Earth’s most extreme and sensitive environments: the Thar desert, the poles, the deep seas and ice-covered oceans. As they’ve returned to these sites over time, they say they have seen their own roles change, from recording how unusual species survive to documenting how those species are struggling to adapt to their changing environments.
As Dhritiman Mukherjee, a photographer from Kolkata who has worked extensively in the Arctic and Antarctic, puts it: “Most people are not connected with these kinds of extreme environments, don’t know what they look like or what creatures live there. It’s my quest to show how beautiful the world can be, how diverse, and what kind of effects people can have on it.”
TRACKING THE MONSOON
Kalyan Varma has been documenting the monsoon in India for almost a decade. It’s becoming more and more difficult to say when and where it will hit, says the Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer. “And it’s becoming more extreme when it does arrive.”
He’s watched the effect of this on human and wildlife populations that depend on the timeliness of the seasons. “That’s also what motivates me to do what I do,” says Varma, 40. “When I see these adverse effects, I am motivated to document them in detail, so that people can have a direct view of the impact.”
Varma worked on the 2014 BBC documentary Wonders of the Monsoon, racing ahead of the massive rain clouds as they made their way across the subcontinent. He travelled from Kovalam in Kerala, where the south-west monsoon first hits, to Rajasthan, always arriving a day or two in advance of the rains, so he could capture the arrival.
It was rough going, but he knew what to expect. Driving around in humid Mumbai, for instance, he learnt to keep the car windows open no matter how heavy the downpour. Humidity levels had to be the same inside the car and out or his lenses would fog up and he wouldn’t be able to shoot when he stepped out.
In hotel rooms, he discovered that the bathroom was the best place for his gear, since humidity would remain high and it was out of the range of air-conditioning, preventing moisture from condensing on the lens when he stepped out the next morning. “When shooting in Agumbe in the Western Ghats, we would dismantle the cameras at night and surround them with halogen lamps, to allow the heat to dissipate any kind of moisture,” Varma says. Ensuring the equipment stays dry is the only way to keep fungus away in a humid climate.
He got used to spending so much of the day in damp clothes and sticky rain gear that his skin was peeling by the end of it. But all that was normal.
A few weeks ago, Varma was in Ranthambore, Rajasthan, when it was hit by a sudden massive hailstorm and winds. “It was untimely weather to say the least,” he says. “The seasonal rains were still weeks away.”
A few things happened immediately. Land birds like the lapwings, who lay their eggs near water bodies, had their eggs destroyed by the hail. Bullfrogs, which lay their eggs in the first rains of the season so they have time and water to incubate, mistook the unseasonal storm for the first rains and laid their eggs early, and the eggs shrivelled up when no more rain followed.
Varma has watched torrential downpours that go on for days in the Western Ghats help life flourish as it should, and he’s watched unseasonal storms destroy entire ways of life.
It’s important to notice and document how the cycle is shifting, he says. “To understand how all living beings have adapted to largely predictable weather and how any change in this pattern causes chaos to their lifecycles.”
BENEATH FROZEN SEAS
Dhritiman Mukherjee has photographed snow leopards in Leh and swum with crocodiles in the lagoons of Banco Chinchorro, Mexico. But the locations that draw him back more than any other are frozen lakes and cold seawaters.
Mukherjee, 46, a RoundGlass Sustain ambassador and Sony Explorer, has dived into the Baikal lake in the Siberian winter, when surface temperatures are typically at -20 degrees Celsius, and conducted shoots between and beneath icebergs in the seas around the Arctic and Antarctic.
Temperatures in these waters are typically between 1 and 3 degrees C. “You need to be in an airtight thermal suit, with a special regulator for the oxygen cylinder that won’t seize in the cold, and with enough light to see what’s down there,” says Mukherjee, who lives in Kolkata. “Freshwater ice is translucent, so there’s a bit of light coming through. But when you duck under sea ice, which is opaque, it’s completely dark.”
Once all the gear is in place, divers descend through a hole in the ice, with a tether around the waist. The tether is their only link to the surface. “If I lose the rope, there would be really very little chance of me finding my way back to the hole, under that vast expanse of ice,” Mukherjee says.
At the poles the challenges get more intense. “Summer dives at the poles mean navigating between icebergs that are constantly moving.” One has to always look out for breakaway chunks that could crush you.
Divers don’t tend to stay for more than 30 to 40 minutes at a stretch. But in those minutes, one enters a different world. Under a metre-thick sheet of ice or between moving icebergs, alien-looking creatures reveal themselves: giant jellyfish, star fish in all colours and sizes, translucent ghost shrimp, amoebic sea snails, vibrantly coloured molluscs called nudibranchs that look a bit like large caterpillars from an imaginative child’s drawing book.
Mukherjee has been cold-water diving for five years and one of his main concerns returning to a place like Antarctica, where permanent ice structures dominate the landscape, is witnessing their depletion. “The sea ice is breaking off earlier than usual,” says Mukherjee. “And because the ice is melting, you can now go to some places which were inaccessible before, and you can’t access some places now because there are more icebergs in the water.”
From aiming to discover what kinds of creatures chose to live in such waters and how they did it, his photographs are now a form of climate-crisis activism. His job as he sees it, he says, is to document how life is adapting to the changing climate.
“Most people are not connected with these kinds of extreme environments, don’t know what they look like or what creatures live there,” Mukherjee says. “It’s my quest to show how beautiful the world can be, how diverse, and what kind of effects people can have on it.”
AT THE POLES
When UK-based filmmaker Fredi Devas returned to South Georgia, a remote island in the southern Atlantic Ocean, in October-November 2017, he noticed two big differences.
He started to see whales from the boat, something that hadn’t happened on his first visit nine years earlier. He realised this was because the whale populations were booming; one of conservation’s rare success stories.
The second thing he noticed, he says, was frightening. There was land where there had been nothing but ice. The glaciers were retreating, altering the landscape. A massive glacier on St Andrew’s Bay had retreated by what he estimated was half a kilometre. And day temperatures reached 16 degrees Celsius on the warmest day of his trip. Spring temperatures in Georgia in those months usually didn’t go above 4-5 degrees Celsius.
“Seals are wrapped in a huge amount of blubber, and penguins are covered in down feathers that are incredibly well insulated against the cold,” says Devas, 43. “So that is a major issue for them.”
Devas first visited the Arctic and Antarctic regions when working on the BBC documentary series Frozen Planet (2011). He returned to many of the same spots in Antarctica almost a decade later, for the Antarctica episode of the 2019 BBC series Seven Worlds, One Planet. (Both shows air on Sony BBC Earth.)
Both shows documented how animals have evolved to survive in the extreme natural conditions of the poles, and captured the stunning landscapes. They also explained the vital role both polar regions play in regulating weather systems across the globe.
Antarctica is his favourite of the two, Devas says. Aside from the breathtaking landscapes, the animals are touchingly friendly because they’ve had little or no interaction with humans and have developed no fear of the species. That’s particularly helpful when shooting a nature documentary.
At one point, he remembers setting up his camera, looking up and finding himself surrounded by a sea of penguins. “They’d crowded all around me, around the back and all the way to the front of my lens,” he says. “They were just looking, not frightened in anyway. It was absolutely exquisite.”
The downside: A lot of penguins mean a lot of feathers and faeces. As you shoot, “you’re being covered in feathers, sand, poo, and it is getting everywhere, in your filming equipment, in all your clothes,” laughs Devas.
Unafraid animals also means the polar bear walking towards, rather than away from, you. “It was terrifying, but at the same time an unbelievably special experience,” says Devas, of the time one ambled closer and closer to him and his crew, unperturbed by their presence. The polar bear eventually walked past them and into the water.
One of the big realisations when shooting in such a place, Devas says, is that what humanity is doing far away is having a profound impact on creatures that may not even have ever seen a human. When the weather warms, for instance, it rains and floods the nests of animals like the chinstrap penguins, wetting chicks that then freeze to death. “If it snows, the nests don’t get flooded. They’re insulated from the cold and can survive,” Devas says. “Going back and covering stories in the Antarctic, almost ten years on, you are very aware that the situation is getting worse rapidly. It’s frightening and it’s sad.”
IN THE DESERT
Desert ecosystems are among the most misunderstood. The Thar Desert, for instance, is widely considered barren land, and has suffered as a result, subjected to years of unscientific greening, land-use changes, farming and unrestrained urban development.
Wildlife filmmaker Pradeep Hegde, 27, headed from his home in Sirsi, Karnataka, to the Thar Desert in Rajasthan in October 2019, to document its secret lives. He had been commissioned to make a series of films for RoundGlass Sustain, a digital storytelling platform focussed on India’s wildlife.
He shot the spiny-tailed lizard, a rare herbivorous reptile; five species of resident and migrant vultures; the dune-dwelling rare Rajasthan toad-headed lizard; and caught up with a swarm of desert locusts from across the ocean in Africa, outside the Desert National Park.
None of this was easy. For the little lizards, he had to lie on the ground, dead still, for hours, in temperatures that reached 40 degrees Celsius. “Cameras tend to overheat and shut down, so it’s always good to travel with more than one camera body or you have to take it out of the sun and wait for it to cool down,” he says.
Prickly seeds covered in tiny spokes, meant to latch onto the fur of animals, stuck in the hundreds to his trousers. “They penetrate the thin fabric and poke your legs like tiny pins. You can’t remove them by hand. All you can do is wait for the day to pass and get out of the pants.” The seeds are still in them, a souvenir from the trip.
But Hegde’s greatest challenge was trying to find the Great Indian Bustard. With only about 150 of the ground-nesting birds left in the wild, he knew the search would be daunting. “It is the first bird that might go extinct in our generation,” Hegde says.
A local guide, Radheshyam Bishnoi, 24, a cowherder from the local Bishnoi community, helped him in his search. It took them a day and a half to spot their first bustard, walking an average of 15 km a day in scorching sun.
The changing landscape, as deserts, left unprotected, are overrun by infrastructure and development, is one of the biggest threats to the bustard. “Earlier they would nest in the grasslands of the Thar, which provided some protection,” says Bishnoi. “Now, with the grasslands shrinking, their nests are in danger from a number of predators.”
A recent study by the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, reported a steady increase in rainfall and floods in Rajasthan over the last 20 years as a result of changing climate patterns.
Bishnoi says his community is living through the change. “The summers are hotter, the winters colder, and the cyclonic storms more frequent.”
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