IOWA–David Thoreson is a professional photographer who is originally from Algona, Iowa but his family had a summer cabin on Lake Okoboji when he was growing up. “That’s how I started sailing and developed my love for the water,” said Thoreson. The cold and windy weather he experienced in northwest Iowa would eventually be an important.

His love for photography didn’t come until he took a couple of elective courses while he was in college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He’s now been a professional travel photographer for decades and has done the majority of his traveling by boat. So far he’s put in about 70,000 miles around the planet. 

Picture courtesy of David Thoreson.

Thoreson originally set out to explore the world and capture its beauty, but his travels quickly turned into an awakening. “I really got into the local ecology of what was going on in the polar areas and studying weather and climate patterns, and seeing these changes that scientists were talking about,” said Thoreson.

Thoreson first became aware of these changes in the 1990s, and in 2007, he was part of the first American crew to ever make the east-west transit through the Northwest Passage without running into ice. 2007 was the year Arctic sea ice was at its lowest on record. 

David Thoreson points at the Arctic sea ice observed in September from 1979 to 2010.

Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere which has caused the entire Earth to warm at an alarming rate. However, the Arctic is warming 2-3 times faster than the rest of the world which has caused the ice to shrink. 

This causes a snowball effect. When sea ice melts, the Earth heats up even more because sea ice reflects the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere, while dark ocean water allows for more absorption of energy.  

Thoreson’s documentation of the sea ice melt in the Arctic in 2007 earned him national attention. He was eventually asked to be the photographer on a much bigger adventure. Over 400 days in 2009 and 2010, David was a part of an expedition to travel around North and South America. “We circumnavigated the two continents, and then we would stop and we would do educational things with children along the way and with other scientists, we worked with NOAA with NASA with MIT and all sorts of institutions through both hemispheres,” said Thoreson.

On this journey, Thoreson was able to connect with indigenous people who shared some startling messages with him, their way of life is vanishing. Thoreson said, “Because climate is changing so quickly, where they predicted animals to be like in the past, with the migrations, the animals are showing up at different times. Marine life, the fish, you know, certain times the season is all upside down now so that it’s unpredictable.”

The unpredictability of the migrations puts nearly one million people at risk for food insecurity. But the areas they store the food in are in jeopardy as well. Many Indigenous people use permafrost caves to store food, but the permafrost is melting, and will soon no longer be a viable option for food storage.

Photo courtesy: David Thoreson. Taken in Tuktoyaktuk, Arctic Canada

Permafrost contains soil and rock, but also the fecal matter of deceased animals. When permafrost melts, methane stored in the fecal matter enters the atmosphere. This is a greenhouse gas that is 25x more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

Thoreson said everything he has documented and learned through these adventures has taught him an important lesson. “Through these stories and spending time with scientists and actually witnessing the changes over time, I’ve come to a realization that we definitely are in a climate crisis right now. Things are changing quickly outside of the normal kind of long historical climate change patterns and we need to take some collective action,” said Thoreson.

David has a ton of stories and pictures from his years as a photographer and explorer, which he has turned into a book called Over the Horizon: Exploring the Edges of a Changing Planet.