The militarization of the North American Arctic began during the Cold War in the 1950s and now affects all Arctic nations – Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Residents of the region face many unknowns due to perceived threats and imagined future geopolitical battlegrounds.
“Distant Early Warning” is my long-term project on the ever-changing state of a perceived militarization of the North American Arctic, from the legacy of the Cold War to combating unknown threats from an ice cap. shrinking glacier and climate change. I use the word “perceived” because since the Cold War, the militarization of the Arctic has been based on an imagined threat and attack that has evolved into many things. Changes in the region are exacerbated by the many unknowns facing the Arctic, one of which is global warming. In political capitals like Washington, where I live, regions like the Arctic — which are inaccessible to almost anyone to experience in person — can only exist in our imaginations through journalism or visual arts like photography.
Made-up stories, imagined possibilities, and ideas about reclaiming territory, resource extraction, and new economic opportunities resulting from the loss of sea ice have elevated concepts of how to secure the Arctic. One of the key lessons I have learned from years of field work is that if an army ever attempted to invade North America through the North Pole, it would result in the greatest search and rescue operation history, because nature is the most powerful force in the world, especially when the temperature is below minus 50 degrees. I’ve been to places in the Arctic where a medical evacuation could take a week or more because of the weather, which is longer than any war zone I’ve covered.
After covering several wars – including in Afghanistan for almost five years, Ukraine and the war on drugs in Mexico – I have turned my attention to examining the growing geopolitical tensions and changing life around the Inuit communities in Canada, Greenland and Alaska, just over 50 miles away. From Russia. Fieldwork has taken place for years in one of the coldest and most geographically beautiful – but logistically difficult – places on the planet, except for its southern cousin, Antarctica. . I wanted to know what happened to one of the oldest imaginary active “front lines” in the world, which was once known as the DEW Line, aka the Distant Early Warning Line, now called the North Warning System. It was one of the largest construction projects in the North American Arctic. It is made up of a series of radar and military installations from Alaska across Canada to Greenland and is still in operation today. I traveled 104,431 miles by large and small plane, 506 miles by helicopter, 5,882 miles by boat or boat, 91 miles by ATV (four-wheeled and tracked), 210 miles by snowmobile, 3,473 miles by vehicles road and 41 miles on foot, and the only threats I could see were those caused by global warming. Sometimes the most valuable tool I had was listening, which gave me a vast resource of history, political understanding, and science.
I grew up in Canada and have photographed the Arctic since 1993, when diamonds were first discovered in the Canadian Far North. When I first flew 29 years ago from Yellowknife, a hub many use to fly north of the Arctic Circle, I was confronted by striking gold miners who s found themselves in a long and bitter stalemate that culminated in a bombing that killed nine miners. It will be decades before I discover the usual images of the Arctic that most think of, such as polar bears, but I was surprised that the animal I saw the most was the crow, the bird smartest on the planet.
In the nearly three decades since my first trip to the Arctic, I have learned a few key things about the polar region that have come out of my fieldwork for my visual reporting. The first thing I learned was that the Arctic is not one place or one thing, but can be over 100 issues and stories depending on who you are and what your goal is. What I discovered was that I had to become a student and that the indigenous people are the first scientists in the Arctic. I learned more about ancient technologies for navigating and understanding weather and animals from Inuit elders than anyone, which helped me see how the region is undergoing a drastic change that will affect our perception of safety in the south.
While traveling along the Northwest Passage, I began to create a series of non-pictorial conceptual documentary photographs visualizing the environmental trauma of the region. I took large format 4 x 5 inch sheets of film and instead of conventionally exposing them to light in a camera, I pressed them against the floor making physical marks on the film reflecting the state of the planet at that location.
At one point, while on an icebreaker with scientists, we passed Terror Bay, named after HMS Terror, the British bomber that attacked Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814. The Terror was eventually transformed into exploration vessel, which took him to Antarctica and eventually the Arctic. In 1845 he left England in search of a new sea route between Europe and Asia. But the trip was unfortunate and the wreckage was not found until 2016 in the Canadian Arctic. It was not clear until then that the ship, which in its time had the greatest naval knowledge and technology, had become trapped in the ice and crushed, all because the crew was missing thousands of years. Inuit knowledge of nature and the environment.
The “Distant Early Warning” exhibit is on view at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County through May 20. Palu’s work has been supported by funding from the John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Geographic Magazine, and the Pulitzer Center.
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