“It makes you small,” Stefano Unterthiner says of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago perched in the high Arctic, where he and his family spent a year. In 2019 the Italian photographer moved with his wife, Stéphanie, and their young son and daughter to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement. They felt at ease right away: Though the town is home to only about 2,100 people—scientists, tour operators, students—they come from around the globe and represent some 50 nationalities.
To learn how a vulnerable ecosystem changes in this fastest-warming place on Earth, Unterthiner went in search of Arctic wildlife. He traveled by snowmobile and on foot, equipped with binoculars and a mandatory rifle, as well as camera gear. He found fjords melting, avalanches increasing, and rain-drenched permafrost icing over the vegetation the wildlife must eat to survive.
Unterthiner fears the area is “changing so quickly that most of the species—because they are so adapted to this environment—eventually won’t be able to evolve in such a rapid way.”