Bubbles trapped in Alaska ice are a mesmerizing, terrifying warning

This photographer's art reveals worrisome signs of climate change.

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Since 2010, Ryota Kajita has photographed patterns that occur both underneath and atop the layers of ice over Alaska’s rivers, lakes, swamps, and ponds.

Bubbles trapped in Alaska ice are a mesmerizing, terrifying warning

This photographer's art reveals worrisome signs of climate change.

This story appears in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Year after year, as autumn in Alaska is ending, Ryota Kajita goes looking for winter’s first ice. A Japanese-born photographer living in Fairbanks, Kajita believes that “everything—even if it appears to be insignificant—connects to larger aspects of our Earth.” An example, he says, is the ice, after it has frozen over ponds and lakes but before it’s been obscured by snow.

Kajita has been shooting photos through the ice since 2010 for his project, Ice Formations. He’s captivated by the geometric patterns he sees: fizzy fields of bubbles under the frozen surface, and snow and ice crystals dusted across it. Many photos are compositions of trapped, frozen bubbles of methane and carbon dioxide.

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The under-ice formations he has photographed range from 10 to 30 inches in diameter, Kajita says. Though he likes how they look, he’s concerned about what they signify. “Because methane gas is considered one of the fundamental causes of greenhouse effects,” he explains, “scientists in Alaska are researching these frozen bubbles in relation to the global climate change.”

Though Kajita loves to photograph the formations, their existence worries him. As Earth’s northern regions warm, the thawing of permafrost accelerates. That releases more methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

Kajita hopes people who see the photos will “feel connected to nature”—and that connection will help them “face bigger issues, like global climate change.”

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“The window of time to find ice patterns is brief,” says Kajita, “because all surfaces on the ground will be covered once snow falls.”