Renowned explorer Sebastian Copeland witnesses the effects of climate change up close.
WRITTEN BY Mary Grauerholz | Photographed By Sebastian Copeland

Adventurer, artist, advocate, explorer: Sebastian Copeland has molded a bundle of disciplines into one gargantuan, larger-than-life career centering on climate change. But his most meaningful role in the world today, amid its roiling environmental debates and turbulent political landscape, may be as witness.


At 52, Copeland has traversed the world, battling unimaginable conditions with eyes wide open, in a head-spinning roster of adventures, all to highlight the environment and help people, as he says, “fall in love with their world.” He has crossed the Arctic Sea on foot to reach the North Pole where he saw the polar ice cap melting; spent two weeks on a crab boat in the frigid Bering Sea; kite-skied across the Greenland ice sheet; and, in a 2,500-mile trek that took 82 days, made the first east-west transcontinental crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole and the Pole of Inaccessibility. In total, he has, so far, logged 5,000 miles on his skis. And this is just the tip of the iceberg that the Los Angeles resident has seen.


Lengthening melt seasons are changing the bear’s habitat and migration patterns, generating higher population concentration where the pack ice is more consistent and less where it isn’t. Photo taken Devon Island, Canadian Artic.

Hearing the word “witness” to embody his work, Copeland pauses. “If it were a job title, I would probably be that,” he says. “Bearing witness is what I do most. The nature of my work is being on the front lines of climate change, witnessing events happening remotely, reporting them, and drawing the line of what’s happening there to the consequences in our daily lives; that is the center of my work.”


Copeland will talk about his adventures, his work, and his advocacy for the environment as a Master Speaker at this year’s Greenbuild International Conference and Expo to be held in Los Angeles on Oct. 5-7, 2016.


Copeland, a British and French national who holds a U.S. passport, spoke from Munich over the phone in July, while training for his next reality-busting adventure and a “world first:” a crossing of the Madigan Line in Australia’s Simpson Desert. He will make the trek through the continent’s driest region with Aussie Mark George. It is the first leg of a two-part adventure that the men are undertaking, called the Last Great March. One big clincher: The treks are unsupported, meaning they will carry everything they need.


The Last Great March, dubbed “Fire+Ice: The Simpson Desert and the North Pole,” will take the men on two remarkable adventures, which are expected to have them cover 900 miles. It is a carbon-neutral undertaking, so any greenhouse-gas emissions will be offset through a project organized by ClimatePartner, which devises solutions for voluntary climate protection in the business world. The Simpson Desert has the longest parallel sand dunes in the world, held by vegetation, which run north to south. It is that vegetation, Copeland says, that makes crossing the east to west Madigan Line so challenging. It has never been accomplished before on foot.


Copeland and George expect the Simpson Desert trip, scheduled this past August, to prepare them for the second half of the Last Great March, an unassisted journey to the North Pole by land from Canada, considered to be the most rigorous adventure in the world. The adventure to the North Pole, due to begin February 2017, has a special significance for Copeland, since he believes that melting ice may prohibit any future explorations on foot.

In the high Arctic, a sled dog may not be the best protection against a bear but it provides early warning. Photo taken on Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic.


Photo of the Otto Fjord in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic sea ice extent is an indicator of climate change.

But there are other reasons that Copeland may not have another chance to duplicate the trek. Since 2007, his life has been a blur, albeit a good one. He has written three books, including Arctica: The Vanishing North (teNeues, 2015), which won the ITB Berlin Book Award in 2016. Arctica is a photographic marvel based on 10 years of traveling remote northern territory. He also made two films. One, Across the Ice, will be released in September 2016 on DVD and VOD. He has also covered a lot of miles: “I just came from several consecutive years of very big trips,” he says.


But an even bigger development in the last two years has been the birth of his two daughters with wife Carolin Copeland, a medical doctor. The children are a gamechanger for him. “That put the last year on ice—or off ice, as it were,” Copeland says with a chuckle.


But in July, Copeland was focusing on training for the desert trek, and the clock was ticking: He had less than a month to go. Unsupported explorations call for extraordinary health. “We take everything we need,” Copeland says. He and Mark George will start with a carry-load of about 350 pounds each. For the Simpson trip, both men will be pushing carts with wheels. For the North Pole, which will start at the northern tip of Canada, it will be sleds.


In Munich, Copeland was conditioning his body to drag these enormous loads. In one training exercise (pictured on his Facebook page), Copeland drags three enormous rubber tires, wrapped in chains with a harness. The total weight of the tires is “only” about 75 kilos, he says, but friction adds a great deal more weight. “You do generally okay the first hour,” Copeland says. “By second hour you’re wondering what the hell your life has come to.”



A photo of Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic. Copeland brings awareness to the world about the effects of climate change through his lens.

One of the biggest difficulties posed by Munich was the weather this past spring, almost constant downpours that made activities like dragging tires even more difficult. “We’ve just had a really big thundershower,” Copeland says. “The weather here has been quite disturbed. We had almost two months of consecutive rain (May and June), with casualties and major flooding. It’s been quite unusual.” Naturally, the topic of climate change quickly rears its ugly head.


“No question [that it’s part of climate change],” Copeland says, “as we’ve seen in the Eastern Seaboard winters in the U.S. and the West Coast drought.” Europe is also experiencing “distinct weather patterns,” including unusually mild winters, which are, among other things, endangering skiing as a sport and a business. As Copeland says, “Skiing here is such a cultural sport.”


He realizes that the extreme weather is not the same as climate, but the evidence is undeniable. “It’s important to make the distinction between weather and climate,” Copeland says. “They’re first cousins, but not with the same parents. With systemic patterns of change and persistent weather changes, you have to make the link. Generally the link is climate.”


Our phone conversation occurred two days after NASA released a statement with the headline “2016 Climate Trends Continue to Break Records.” The report begins: “Two key climate change indicators—global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent—have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016, according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite data.”


“They called the first half of 2016 unprecedentedly warm, and 2015 was the hottest year on record,” Copeland says. “So 2016 is blowing 2015 out of the water. We have a cumulative set of annual records that point to a very significant shift in weather.” The global agreement on climate change reached in Paris last winter at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) was “promising and encouraging,” Copeland says. But then he notes that Paris was committed to setting the rise in global surface temperature at 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. “Because of 2016, we are already at 1.2 degrees.” While he concedes that El Niño played a role in rising temperatures, the NASA graph is alarming, he says,“and one of the places it is hitting the hardest is the Arctic region.”


“Climate change is a race happening in slow motion,” Copeland says. “Right now, we’re experiencing the effects of carbon input and economic policies that are 30 or 40 years past. The past will catch up with us. In many ways, the results of this year’s [presidential] race will be announced in 10 to 20 years.”

Copeland will trek through Australia’s Simpson Desert as well as the North Pole on what he is calling his “Last Great March”—also dubbed Fire + Ice. Right: Copeland stands at the geographical North Pole.

A big part of the answer, Copeland believes, is engaging various sectors around the world, and it has not been easy. “It’s very difficult to capture politicians and engage stakeholders and business leaders,” he says. He considers just one commodity, cars. “As the price of oil drops, people are going back to larger cars and trucks and more horsepower,” he says. “We have an uphill battle with consumerism.” Much of the work lies in convincing consumers of the virtue of fuel-efficient cars and trucks, he says, so that business leaders and car manufacturers will follow.


And there is the problem that some of the 178 signatories of the Paris agreement are trying to back out of the agreement; and that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he would reverse President Obama’s agreement to sign. “We certainly know the nominee of the Republican Party has vowed to renege on the policy,” Copeland says.


But the world climate accord holds hope, he says. “On the whole, there is a very hopeful note that contrasts with the very bleak projections,” Copeland says. He also sees a positive development in the agenda of the 2016 G20 Hangzhou summit (planned for Sept. 4-5, 2016, in China), which places climate change at the top. Another hopeful sign, he adds: In 2015, 90 percent of new energy around the world was renewable. “Wind and solar prices have come down, and business leaders are jumping on board,” Copeland says. “Coal is quickly becoming an antiquated form of energy, not because we all want to be hugging trees and dancing in the woodlands with fairies, but because it makes economic sense.”


He also feels a distinct, and growing, rumbling in the general public about the damaging effects of climate change—he calls this “the kitchen sink and schoolyard conversation” of climate change. So there is, he says, “the promise of hope.”


Some of Copeland’s optimism, guarded as it is, may come from childhood. His father, musical conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus, and mother, Penelope, raised him to be curious, artistic, and comfortable in the outdoors.


“We’re the product of our early years to a great extent,” he muses. “For me, I was conditioned to enjoy activities, many sports, and wild natural environments.” He was on skis by the age of three.


His maternal grandfather was a particular influence. “He was an enthusiastic big-game hunter initially, then traded his gun in midlife for a camera and never shot another animal again,” Copeland says. His grandfather regaled Copeland with stories of exotic travels. “I grew up listening to his tales of tigers, bears, elephants, life in India and Swaziland. He was grumpy and silent but very much a lover of nature,” he says of his grandfather. “That love of nature was infectious.”


Copeland’s love of nature, and advocacy for the environment—combined with his much-discussed adventures, has brought him many accolades. He was named one of the world’s top 50 adventurers in 2015 by Men’s Journal. His documentary, Into the Cold, was a featured selection at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.


Greenland Ice Sheet, around latitude N74 degrees.

Greenland Ice Sheet, around latitude N74 degrees.

He has addressed environmental issues at the United Nations, the World Affairs Council, and at private companies, including Google and Apple. He is founder and chairman of the Sedna Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises support and awareness of the environmental issues affecting the polar regions. His advocacy work also includes participation on the boards of environmental groups, including his current position on the board of Global Green USA. He is an ambassador with companies that sponsor his work, including Napapijri, a European clothing brand.


Copeland began his professional life as a more mainstream commercial photographer, shooting celebrities, movie posters, and other commercial projects. “It was a formative period to develop my skill set as an artist and understand what I wanted to be contributing to society,” Copeland says. But it led to a big decision. “In the commercial world I was at odds with my loftier aspirations, of changing the world,” he says. “I came to the conclusion that those two paths were at odds. I reached a crossroads.”


Today Copeland’s awe-inspiring photographs of the world’s environment are shown widely, including an exhibit in Moscow scheduled for mid-September. He is currently showing photos from “Arctica: The Vanishing North” in the outdoor group exhibition, “The Fence,” which began traveling across the U.S. this summer. In November, he will exhibit photos in conjunction with the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City—during which mayors around the world convene on climate change.


Most important to Copeland are his wife and daughters. Having children, the first at age 50, gave him another perspective on the environment and the future. As he explains: “My older daughter was born at a time in my life when it could have well have been said that I wouldn’t have children.” Candidly, there was a series of reasons for that. High on that list was a real concern about the responsibility of child-rearing in the world we live in, giving them the promise of an uncertain future. He feels lucky that Carolin is his wife and their mother. “It takes a mother to bring up children with emotional and intellectual caliber, in the raising of the next generation of peaceful warriors,” he says.


Copeland looks forward to bringing his children—and future audiences—closer to the planet’s wondrous intricacies. “He or she who walks the land will inevitably become a warrior in its defense,” he says after some thought. “There is a gene we share; it is innate to have a relationship with nature. People are always sensitive to the environment if it is presented in the right light. Whatever your comfort zone is, there is plenty of beauty to be had out there.”

For more information on Sebastian Copeland, visit 


He will blog on his two upcoming explorations (“Fire+Ice: The Simpson Desert and the North Pole”) at He is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His book, Arctica: The Vanishing North, is available online: © Arctica: The Vanishing North by Sebastian Copeland, published by teNeues, $125.00, also available as Collector’s Edition –