One Artist’s Mission to Document the Changing North
It’s no secret that the climate in northeastern Minnesota has changed in the past decade. Winters are warmer and spring tends to be a lot wetter.
Artist and photographer Benjamin Olson has set out on an ambitious project to document the effects of climate change in the Boundary Waters and the surrounding ecosystem. Utilizing a number of photographic techniques, his long-term project aims to track forest succession as well as the migration of species, creating a beautiful — and troubling — portrait of a changing environment.
Captivated by his work, and by his belief that art is powerful means to create connections and make people feel the magnitude of environmental issues, the Friends has partnered with Olson. It was our pleasure to sit down with him to learn more about his project and how he hopes it will make people take action with climate and conservation.
Tell us about your connection with northeastern Minnesota?
I took up photography when I was 18, and really, that’s when my life-long love of the boreal forest began. I grew up around the Twin Cities, hunted and fished in the prairies but had no idea that there were these lakes, steep rivers, forests filled with wolves, moose, lynx and owls in my home state. I became fascinated by this wilderness. I became obsessed. This became my second home. After 14 years, I’ve invested roughly 1,000 days in the field hiking, paddling, and tracking wildlife throughout northeastern Minnesota.
When did you start to notice the environment was changing?
Since 2005, a series of wildfires has burned roughly 20 percent of the BWCAW. About six years ago I began to notice that maples and aspens were proliferating in sites affected by fire and blowdown. Fewer pines and other coniferous species were coming back. They were being pushed out by these other species. I was in college at the time, studying ecology, and started to make connections between the changes that had been slowly occurring throughout Arrowhead region and the climate changes that were occurring on a global level.
When I was out in the field photographing wildlife, I realized that moose were not as plentiful as when I first began to explore the region. Whitetail deer were present where they had not been before. I came across bobcats in areas where I was tracking Canada Lynx. The native species were being pushed out.
Is something about being a photographer that has allowed you to notice these changes?
Definitely. As a photographer, I’m forced to pay attention and closely observe my surroundings. Plus, I tend to revisit the same locations year after year. This process has allowed me watch places change over the course of 14 years, not just aesthetically but ecologically. In these situations, my training in biology [Olson graduated with a B.A. in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology] has helped me to recognize the subtle environmental changes that have occurred in the areas where I frequently travel.
You’ve spent a lot of time photographing moose, one of the most iconic Northwoods animals. In the past decade, moose have also been one the hardest hit by environmental changes. Tell us about what you learned about moose from your time in the field.
Moose are something of an obsession. A holy grail, if you will. While I have had many moose encounters (my record is sighting 27 in one summer in Minnesota), the places I used to see moose are now largely absent of them. The forests have aged, whitetail deer have moved in and the moose have either perished or moved out.
Over the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for new moose habitat; looking for high-traffic areas and investing in the necessary equipment to properly document the spatial overlap between moose and deer during the winter months.
As the average annual snow depth decreases, white-tailed deer have begun to live year round in the southern fringes of boreal forests. The deer introduces brain worm and liver fluke to the moose population, which they are not adept to handle. This, combined with a warming climate and a strong predator population has taken its toll on the herd.
You’ve seen similar warning signs with other Northwoods animals as well, such as the common loon.
The proliferation of black flies, which is linked to earlier ice-off and increased precipitation in the spring, has been a real problem for loons. The flies prey on the birds while they are nesting, driving them off the nest and forcing them to dive in the water — that is, abandon their nests in order to escape the bugs. In 2014, northern Wisconsin witnessed an approximately 70 percent nesting failure due to abnormally high black fly numbers. That’s a shocking figure, and biologists have projected that loons will no longer summer in Minnesota as soon as 2080.
Many of the environmental changes, such as decreased snow depths, changes in the thaw and freeze cycle, forest succession and competition with southern species that normally don’t go so far north may seem insignificant, but when taken together, these changes have had a drastic impact on the entire ecosystem. I’ve seen this first hand — and biologists have documented — how animals such as the Canadian Lynx and several northern owl species have been impacted by a changing landscape due to climate change.
Tell us about how you will document forest succession and the consequences for Boundary Waters.
For this portion of my project I want to use time lapse photography in areas of major disturbance, for example, burn sites, clear cut, and blow down. For a minimum of a decade the cameras will remain in a stationary location to document each growing season. The end result will illustrate how the forest composition is changing from boreal to oak savannah. This is important to illustrate to the rest of the world how our boreal forests will change if we continue on the same path.
On a global level, why is it so important to document these changes in Minnesota?
Boreal forests, like those found in Minnesota, are circumpolar. They wrap around the entire northern hemisphere and produce more oxygen than all other land forests combined (they don’t quite produce the same amount of oxygen as the marine biome). They also play a vital role in sequestering carbon. Globally, this ecosystem has the ability to remove large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere while oxygenating the biosphere. A lot of attention is paid to the melting Arctic and Antarctic ice pack, but the destruction and loss of the boreal forests, which we are seeing in Minnesota, will have devastating consequences. More people need to be aware of this.
What do you hope your work will do?
In the next several decades, the boreal forest will retreat further north, and leave Minnesota. That means we will lose our moose, loon, lynx and many other beloved animals. Northern Minnesota will never be the same. That is a hard pill to swallow.
The entire project is a scientifically grounded, artistic expression of this loss. More so, it is a testament to how climate change is affecting the world’s boreal forests. Art, in particular photography, can tell the story of the changing forest and encourage the public to understand the work being done by our scientists.
This project will be my life’s work. I anticipate spending the next 50 to 60 years observing, documenting and sharing the ecological changes in the region. At the end of the day, I want people to feel the power and wonder of the boreal forest. This project is, ultimately, a celebration of the north, and an urgent call to protect our cherished waters and wilderness.