Weatherman, photographer & climate defender: interview with Ruben Weytjens

“You don’t need to do extreme things to take part in the fight against climate change.”

Belgian weatherman Ruben Weytjens, whose picture of the Northern Lights in Norway won the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) photo competition and now features in its annual calendar, speaks to UNRIC about his passion as well as the devastation he has witnessed from climate change.

How do you capture the Northern Lights?

You never quite know what you will see and when you will be able to take a photo, but that’s what makes the hunt for them so exciting. It’s like a gold rush; I think I have Northern Lights fever.

The Northern Lights are an amazing phenomenon connecting the weather in space with that of the earth. They originate from the sun’s nuclear fusion, when electrically charged particles escape the sun’s corona and, after travelling 150 million kilometres through space, are drawn into our own atmosphere through the earth’s magnetic field to the polar regions.

It’s just incredible that we as humans can see these wonderful lights with the naked eye, which are created by collisions between oxygen and nitrogen atoms. I’ve seen them hundreds of times, in all their colours and all their forms.

Have you witnessed signs of climate change during your travels?

Three years ago, in Spitzberg, in northern Norway, I witnessed an avalanche caused by extremely warm weather. It came to a halt about 300 metres away from me. The next day, a road was declared uninhabitable due to a risk of repeated avalanches. Dozens of people found themselves without shelter and had to leave the area. When the permafrost (ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years straight) started defrosting, even the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where millions of seeds in the world are stored, risked being flooded.

Ruben Weytjens in the snow
© Ruben Weytjens

I have witnessed the rapid melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, which has often made the headlines. I will never forget our Inuit guide’s emotion last November when she wanted to show us the icebergs near Ilulissat but discovered they had all drifted away to the ocean. They had melted so quickly that the icebergs became too small to remain fixed to the ocean floor. It had an enormous impact on the ecosystem.

Climate change also has consequences for animals.  Reindeer, which are essential for the Sámi people, risk dying of hunger in winter in Norway and Finnish Lapland. Regular thawing prevents them from finding grass and moss. On the snowy surface, crusts of ice which are too difficult for them to cross appear and prevent them from smelling the grass and moss. Now weakened, the reindeer are easy prey for their natural predators.

Iceland will next year launch a project where different types of grains will be grown. Wheatfields in Iceland… it’s unbelievable, but soon to be a reality!

You also give conferences on climate change. What is the message you try to give?

Ruben Weytjens, guide in Iceland
© Ruben Weytjens

A few years ago, I tried to show that the climate is warming quicker than ever and that humanity is responsible. Today, however, the emphasis is on how to adapt rather than prevention. We must, of course, do better to avoid the worst, but it is now clear that we must bear the consequences. We need to prepare ourselves and gradually adapt. I am not pointing the finger at anyone, otherwise, people become defensive. We all have a part to play. Everyone is responsible, but if we all raise awareness, we can make a big difference.

Do you have a tip for our readers when it comes to climate action?

I would like everyone to realise that you don’t have to do extreme things to take part in the fight against climate change. You don’t have to become vegetarian; simply eating less meat is a good thing. You also don’t need to stop flying; flying less often is helpful. You don’t need to avoid having children; having one less child helps a lot, and so on. Everyone can play their role in their own way, by doing what’s important to them.

 

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