Photojournalist Peter Essick has traveled the world and seen the effects of climate change firsthand. In his book Our Beautiful, Fragile World, Essick portrays 50 images taken from all seven continents while on assignment for National Geographic Magazine. In the following excerpt, Essick recounts which species are thriving — and which are dying — from climate change.
When one starts to examine the effects of warming the atmosphere, all sorts of problems become apparent. For example, migrating animals such as the Porcupine caribou leave Canada each year about a month before they want to arrive at their birthing grounds in northern Alaska. They like to get there before the bugs hatch, when there is enough plant life for their young to forage on. With spring coming earlier, the caribou have been arriving too late and their numbers have been declining.
In southern Alaska, the spruce bark beetle thrived in the warmer weather and killed over four million acres of spruce. One thing I discovered while photographing the ecological part of climate change is that many animals are having problems adapting to warmer climates, but the bugs love it. The warmer it is, the more eggs hatch, and the more insects thrive.
The other species that are at risk are the ones that grow or live at the highest elevations. Some plants can gradually move up slope and some animals can move up the hill to a colder spot. But this is impossible for animals such as the pika (small, rodent-like mammals) that already live on the highest talus slopes and have adapted to eating certain grasses near their nests. They love the cold and have nowhere to go. It is predicted that these will be the first mammals to face extinction as a result of global warming.
In Mexico, I photographed monarch butterflies, which spend the winter in the cool but relatively mild high elevation forests west of Mexico City. It is quite a sight to see all the trees covered with sleeping butterflies. They gradually wake up as the sun rises. It is predicted that in a hundred years, this region will be too warm and have weather that is too extreme to provide a safe haven for the butterflies. Their numbers will most likely decline dramatically because it will be very difficult for them to change a migration pattern that has become instinctive over thousands of years.
Frogs are facing problems because a fungus called chytridiomycosis, which is lethal to them, becomes more active in warmer climates. The fungus has been proposed as a contributing factor in the global decline of 30 percent of the world’s amphibian populations. A decline in frog populations has been documented in Costa Rica. In 1980, in a study of the Fleischmann’s glass frog, 300 frogs were counted in a 120-meter stretch of the Rio Guacima. In a repeat survey ten years later, there were, at most, only eight frogs found in the same area.
When I met the scientist who conducted the study, he told me that I wouldn’t be able to see any frogs at that point in the dry season. However, I was told there were some Fleischmann’s glass frogs in terrariums at a place called the Frog Pond in Monteverde. It wasn’t what I had originally envisioned, but I started to think that maybe I could photograph a glass frog on a piece of glass. I walked into the Frog Pond carrying my 180 mm macro lens with a flash, and saw one Fleischmann’s frog clinging to the side of a terrarium. I snapped one frame and the frog jumped away. I spent the next several hours trying to place a frog in various positions on a piece of glass I had brought, but the initial frame turned out to be the best.
Recently named by Outdoor Photography magazine as one of the 40 most influential nature photographers, Peter Essick has traveled extensively over the last two decades, photographing around the world. Essick has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine for 25 years, where he has produced 40 feature articles on an array of topics. You can view more of Essick’s work in his new book Our Beautiful, Fragile World.