Two photographs of the Greenland ice sheet, taken nine years apart by New York City-based photographer Diane Tuft, are starkly different.
In the first, the ice sheet is pure white. It’s apparent, solid and frigid-looking. In the second, photographed at the same time and place in 2016, lakes of a vivid aqua color dot the landscape, peeking through the ice sheet.
It’s a beautiful image, but it tells a sobering story: Climate change is real, and it’s happening now.
Ms. Tuft was the recipient of the Southampton Arts Center’s Champion of the Arts award earlier this month for her work in telling this story.
“For me, that was probably the most shocking thing, because I really visited the same place, the same time, and it was a totally different landscape,” the part-time Water Mill resident said in a recent telephone interview about her trips to Greenland. “The iceberg was supposed to be 300 feet tall, and now they are tiny little icebergs that are melting and falling into the bay every day.” The water is even deep enough for scientists to dive in, she noted.
Ms. Tuft had to wear a hat, gloves and a scarf to take the first photo. It was plain cold. In the second? It was a balmy 65 degrees, and she wore a light Uniqlo vest. “I mean, we are talking about drastic,” she said of the temperature change.
Ms. Tuft graduated from the University of Connecticut with a mathematics degree and said that her background and interest in math and science has helped guide her artwork.
She’s the author of “The Arctic Melt: Images of a Disappearing Landscape,” which shares her journey throughout the Arctic Circle to document the ice before it melts, and “Gondwana: Images of an Ancient Land,” photographs of Antarctica, for which she received a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the continent.
Ms. Tuft is quick to note, and emphasize, that scientists say the Arctic could have a summer without ice as soon as 2040.
“When scientists predict that it’s very, very important not to have our temperature go above 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, they really mean it,” she says, sounding almost exasperated.
Indeed, world leaders, governments, the private sector, local authorities and more groups are convening at the United Nations in New York City next week for the Climate Action Summit. UN Secretary General António Guterres has asked all leaders to show up with clear plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next 10 years. Reducing carbon emissions can help keep the global temperature from rising more.
Ms. Tuft’s photographs are so striking because she captures infrared and ultraviolet light, neither of which is visible to the naked eye. To document infrared radiation and light in landscapes, she uses infrared film. The products are photographs that are black-and-white: black indicates cooler areas, and white signifies warmer areas.
To document ultraviolet light, Ms. Tuft specifically travels to places that are known to have high levels of it, including Greenland, New Zealand, Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean. These photographs are remarkable because the ultraviolet light exaggerates colors, notably emerald greens and bright blues.
“It’s through the beauty of the landscape that I’m able to focus on telling the story about how these landscapes became so beautiful,” Ms. Tuft said. “These are really dire effects that are happening every moment, so this is kind of what I’m trying to communicate.”
She’s referencing the continuous depletion of the ozone layer due to global warming, as more ultraviolet radiation is able to reach earth’s surface. While the photographs that showcase this type of light are striking, they really highlight the troubling reality of global warming that humans are facing.
“Now, it just seems like every day I’m getting more and more responses to the work, because people are now realizing that this is important work, and they are paying more attention to it,” she said. “I’m glad that someone is paying attention to it.”
Southampton Arts Center Executive Director Tom Dunn said Ms. Tuft was the “perfect and only choice” for this year’s Champion of the Arts award. In fact, she was part of SAC’s first show back in 2013, exhibiting photographs of Iceland and Greenland that also communicated the effects of climate change on the landscape.
“What Diane does through photography explores the beauty and fragility of our ever-changing environment,” Mr. Dunn said. “We thought that Diane’s beautiful and important work regarding the climate and global warming and the health of our planet just made perfect sense.
“It’s an important and critically timely story to tell,” he added.
As for what’s next for Ms. Tuft, she’s spent the last year traveling the world — again — to document people who’ve lost their homes to rising sea levels. From the Florida Keys to Bangladesh, the project will include debris washed up from the ocean in various countries, sculpture, a short film, aerial photography and portraits of 100 people who have been displaced.
“There’s just a strip of land with some platform huts, and they’re surrounded by water,” Ms. Tuft said, highlighting part of her new project, and the many people at risk of losing their homes due to rising sea levels. “There’s not a place to pick up and move.
“It’s a very big global problem,” she added.