From Playboy to Polar Bears: A Fashion Photographer’s Journey to Document Climate Science in Northernmost Alaska

Florencia Mazza Ramsay traveled to Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States, to document life and research on the front lines of climate change

Mark Barton and principal investigator Kevin Boswell of Florida International University conduct species sampling of the nearshore waters. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Mound 44 on the Chukchi Sea in Barrow, is threatened by erosion. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
A woman cuts whale meat. With warmer currents and changing sea ice conditions, safety has become more challenging for hunters, who must travel on ice to reach whales. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Isaac lives on Mound 44. He remembers his childhood when he used to sled down the now-eroded hill on skins. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Three Iñupiat elders enjoy gather to celebrate the safe return of the whaling captions. No matter how bad the weather, everyone attends the celebration, with some elders arriving as early as 6:00 AM to gather good seats. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Mazza Ramsay hopes to return to Barrow to gauge whether the research being conducted is inspiring for the younger generation, or viewed as intrusive. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
A toddler seeks refuge in her mother’s arms during an unusually hot 4th of July in Barrow. Every Independence Day, local babies participate in a pageant called Top of the World, donning traditional attire made by family members. While the warm day (70°F) was a rarity, this past winter in Alaska was 11 degrees warmer than average. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
A caribou skin hangs to dry. Much of the native community is receptive to scientists and researchers, but others are wary. "Some people think we are scaring away their caribou," says Mazza Ramsay. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
George Divoky has studied the population of black guillemots, a black and white waterbird, on Cooper Island near Barrow for over 40 years. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Beginning in 2002, hungry polar bears ventured to the island, prompting Divoky to swap his tent for a hut. As their natural habitat, Arctic pack ice, degrades, the bears have come closer to the Atlantic shoreline in search of food. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Denver Holt has collected information on snowy owls in Barrow, Alaska, for 25 years. Noting the amount of captured pray, owlet conditions and egg hatching in each nest, Denver works quickly and gently to minimize disturbance. From 1996 to 2016, he has observed a decrease in Barrow's snowy owl population. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Sergio Vargas from the University of Texas at El Paso tracks coastal erosion along the Beaufort Sea. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
A sea wall prevents the sea from reaching the road. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Researchers built this pathway in the early 2000s to study the effects of warming and drying on the tundra ecosystems. Now, it allows new generations a researchers to more quickly cross across the tundra. "Hiking on the spongy tundra gets pretty painful and cold," says Mazza Ramsay. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Stephen Escarzaga takes a dGPS point of a research site. Part of the Barrow Information Database Project project is to preserve the legacy of research in Barrow by keeping current and historical sites on record and available for the public and researchers to learn about. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Radford University conducts preliminary data collection on the tundra. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
From June to September 2015, photographer Florencia Mazza Ramsay documented the work of researchers studying these effects. She shared this hut with seven researchers from the University of Texas El Paso. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Barrow, June 2015. In 2016, Barrow saw the earliest snow melt on record and the tundra was fully green by June. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
The effects of earlier ice melts include changes in vegetation as well as wildlife breeding and migration patterns. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Barrow Observatory recorded ice melt in Barrow on May 13, the earliest in 73 years of record-keeping. Florencia Mazza Ramsay
Though this sign suggest otherwise, no roads lead to Barrow. The only way to reach the United States' northernmost town is by plane. Barrow lies north of the 71st parallel and is home to a population of 4,000. In the summer, temperatures reach highs of around 40°F. Florencia Mazza Ramsay

Barrow, Alaska is not the pristine wilderness touted by the American imagination. It is not home to sparkling bays where whales jump against a backdrop of crystal white mountains to the delight of passing cruise ships. Rather, it is northernmost Alaska—“gravel and coast and tundra,” says photographer Florencia Mazza Ramsay. Flat land stretches for miles. The climate is harsh and wild. “It feels like you are in the middle of nowhere and that’s the end of the world and there’s nowhere else to go,” she says.

Mazza Ramsay’s photography credits include Playboy Spain and Porsche, so as she was trekking alongside scientists in Barrow last summer on high alert for polar bears, she paused to consider the contrast.

“I went from five-star hotels and celebrities to carrying a shotgun [for defense] in the Arctic,” she says with a laugh.

Originally from Argentina, Mazza Ramsay now lives in El Paso, Texas, with her husband, a research assistant for Systems Ecology Lab (SEL), whose work includes monitoring coastal erosion in Barrow during the summer months. Through him, Mazza Ramsay learned about the very real impact of climate change in the Arctic town, including an average of 60 feet of coastal erosion in the past decade.

Inspired to share the realities of this far-off place with the El Paso community, she applied for a grant from the University of Texas El Paso, which runs SEL, to document the research being done in Barrow. Project approved, she set out with her husband from June to September 2015.

When the Ramsays arrived, SEL's principal investigator had hoped they would have a chance to see frozen Barrow. “That’s what gets everyone excited and that makes really interesting photos,” Mazza Ramsay explains. “The thing is that we barely got to see the frozen Barrow."

This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Barrow Observatory observed snowmelt on May 13, the earliest in 73 years of record-keeping. The melt followed a winter that was 11 degrees above normal for the state. According to NOAA, Barrow is one of the last places in the United States to lose snow cover. The effects of earlier ice melts include changes in vegetation as well as wildlife breeding and migration patterns.

Over the course of four months, Ramsay accompanied scientists from several organizations studying a range of these effects, from erosion to changes in snowy owl habitsA few of the scientists she accompanied had traveled to Barrow for many years and provided her with valuable, firsthand insight into the realities of Barrow’s climate. Among them was George Divoky, who has studied the population of black guillemots, a black and white waterbird, on Cooper Island for more than 40 years.

In that time, Divoky has witnessed many changes to the tiny island off the coast of Barrow. Notably, this summer was the black guillemot’s earliest breeding season yet. While he used to camp on the island, he now lives in a hut to stay away from hungry polar bears and in 2002, he had to be airlifted off the island when polar bears ripped up his tents. Divoky attributes this change to the degradation of the their natural habitat, Arctic pack ice. 

Outside of documenting scientific work, Mazza Ramsay engaged with the local community and came to understand the effects of a changing environment on their way of life. From her conversations, she learned that warmer currents and changing sea ice conditions have made conditions more difficult for whalers, who must travel on ice to reach whales and are setting out on their hunts later than usual. This is a significant change, says Mazza Ramsay, due to limited resources in the Arctic tundra: "Barrow culture is rooted deeply in subsisting off the land. People really need to hunt to survive." Elders also shared memories with her of days past when they would sled down now-eroded hills.

Mazza Ramsay hopes that her photographs highlight the importance of climate change beyond political boundaries and put a face to the ways in which scientists are working to understand its effects.

Looking forward, she aspires to return to Barrow to explore the relationship between scientific and local communities. She would like to get a sense of whether the research being done is inspiring for the younger, native generation or viewed as intrusive. Much of the native community is receptive to the scientists’ presence, she explains, but others are wary yet.