Daily Picture Show

The Oil Spill: A Conservation Photographer's Reaction

Florian Schulz, nature and wildlife photographer, is a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Concerned about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the oil spill disaster, he contacted the Picture Show with this reflection on his work in conservation photography.

  • Members of the Porcupine caribou herd migrate across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain in the so-called "1002 Area," where oil companies have intended to drill in past years
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    Members of the Porcupine caribou herd migrate across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain in the so-called "1002 Area," where oil companies have intended to drill in past years
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • Snow geese return to the Arctic during spring migration along coastal plains near the Teshekpuk Lake area in northwest Alaska.
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    Snow geese return to the Arctic during spring migration along coastal plains near the Teshekpuk Lake area in northwest Alaska.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • A large group of Arctic murres rests on a meltwater pool in the thawing Arctic Ocean, near Cape Lisburne in the Chukchi Sea. The seabirds nest in nearby cliffs, where offshore oil exploration is scheduled to begin this summer.
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    A large group of Arctic murres rests on a meltwater pool in the thawing Arctic Ocean, near Cape Lisburne in the Chukchi Sea. The seabirds nest in nearby cliffs, where offshore oil exploration is scheduled to begin this summer.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • A pack ice landscape near the native community of Point Hope, Alaska, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea.
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    A pack ice landscape near the native community of Point Hope, Alaska, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • A polar bear patrols the pack ice on the Chukchi Sea in Alaska, looking for seals under the ice.
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    A polar bear patrols the pack ice on the Chukchi Sea in Alaska, looking for seals under the ice.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • An industrial area at Prudhoe Bay. Despite strict measures, contamination and oil spills still occur. The last spill, due to improper maintenance of the Alaska pipeline, spread thousands of gallons of oil over the Arctic tundra.
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    An industrial area at Prudhoe Bay. Despite strict measures, contamination and oil spills still occur. The last spill, due to improper maintenance of the Alaska pipeline, spread thousands of gallons of oil over the Arctic tundra.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • Caribou migrate along theriver in the Arctic Refuge, with the Brooks Range in the background.
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    Caribou migrate along theriver in the Arctic Refuge, with the Brooks Range in the background.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • Ringed seals rest on sea ice in early summer on the Beaufort Sea.
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    Ringed seals rest on sea ice in early summer on the Beaufort Sea.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • A Bearded Seal rests on sea ice with a oil drilling rig in the background. Beaufort Sea, Alaska.
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    A Bearded Seal rests on sea ice with a oil drilling rig in the background. Beaufort Sea, Alaska.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • Members of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, currently about 350,000 animals strong, migrate across areas that have been mapped out for large-scale mining development. The herd has one of the longest migration routes of any land mammal in North America.
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    Members of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, currently about 350,000 animals strong, migrate across areas that have been mapped out for large-scale mining development. The herd has one of the longest migration routes of any land mammal in North America.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • An oil facility burns excess gas on the western side of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. It is one of many similar industrial structures stretching for more than 60 miles along the coastal planes. Nearby, the native town of Nuiqsut is suffering from bad air quality as a result of the pollutants.
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    An oil facility burns excess gas on the western side of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. It is one of many similar industrial structures stretching for more than 60 miles along the coastal planes. Nearby, the native town of Nuiqsut is suffering from bad air quality as a result of the pollutants.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • Hundreds of beluga whales gather along the coast of the Chukchi Sea near a proposed Western Arctic coal project, where the construction of a deepwater port is being discussed.
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    Hundreds of beluga whales gather along the coast of the Chukchi Sea near a proposed Western Arctic coal project, where the construction of a deepwater port is being discussed.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild
  • A grizzly bear tries to find food in a garbage container at the Prudhoe Bay oil field.
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    A grizzly bear tries to find food in a garbage container at the Prudhoe Bay oil field.
    Florian Schulz/Visions Of The Wild

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For many years now there has been strong interest in expanding oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, both on land and offshore. Many have considered the Arctic landscape a barren wasteland or a flat, white nothingness.

I take these sentiments as a personal challenge to document an extremely remote and mostly unknown area of North America — for a public that otherwise might never see it. It's true that at first glance some areas may seem desolate or barren. But those same areas may be teeming with life just days later, with tens of thousands of migrating caribou, or wolves or grizzlies.

For several years now I have been working on a project with Braided River Books, with the support of Earthjustice, in hopes of making public this visual account of a stunning ecosystem. And after spending many months, year after year on the ground among caribou herds, snowy owls and grizzly bears, I realized that the only way to effectively capture the vastness was by air.

Working with experienced pilots, I spent more than 100 hours in the air over the course of two months. I remember gliding over the Western Arctic, suddenly encountering the Western Arctic caribou herd, which is 350,000 animals strong; grizzly bears wandered across the vast landscape; along the coast of the Chukchi Sea I found congregations of hundreds of beluga whales.

A group of muskoxen faces a blizzard in Alaska's western Arctic. i i

A group of musk oxen faces a blizzard in Alaska's western Arctic. Florian Schulz hide caption

itoggle caption Florian Schulz
A group of muskoxen faces a blizzard in Alaska's western Arctic.

A group of musk oxen faces a blizzard in Alaska's western Arctic.

Florian Schulz

But by air I also saw the extent of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield and other mining operations, hidden by remoteness from the public eye. After watching the devastating effect of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I am horrified by the thought of offshore oil development in the Arctic. The climate is extreme. Operations must happen in complete darkness for several months out of the year, and ice constitutes a severe hazard. And, those difficulties aside, there is no known method for cleaning up oil in icy waters.

America has a long history of conservation and set a strong precedent with the creation of Yellowstone, the first national park. In light of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf, it is important to take a break from rampant oil development and remember that commitment to the American landscape.

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