There Is Gas Under the Tundra – Photographs by Charles Xelot

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Gas Under the Tundra

There Is Gas Under the Tundra

In the far reaches of the Arctic tundra, fire and ice coexist in expansive natural gas fields.

Photographs by Charles Xelot
Text by Cat Lachowskyj

 

We typically think of ice and fire as elemental opposites – two of nature’s most primal forces that cannot exist in the same place at once. But the Russian Arctic’s Yamal Peninsula is home to one of the largest gas fields in the world, where the resource is tapped and harvested for use all over the planet. We’ve become dependent on natural gas for everything from taking a shower to turning on the lights in our homes, and our dependency has made its harvest a lucrative venture. But even in the depths of the Arctic, there are civilizations to be displaced by modern development.

Upon hearing about the Yamal LNG Project, photographer Charles Xelot decided to photographically document the changing landscape. “Travelling in the area can be tricky,” he explains. “I did a lot of snowmobiling, for days and days, but I also travelled a lot via helicopters, which are replacing commercial airplane flights in the region.” Xelot photographed the landscape and dystopian infrastructure voraciously, showing how the gas chambers seep to the surface, set ablaze despite the icy crust of the tundra’s surface.

His series, titled There Is Gas Under the Tundra, also sheds light on how the local Nenets civilization has been impacted. “I spent quite a lot of time with the local people in Sabetta, and it was very interesting,” Xelot reflects. “They are losing their land to factories, and this has impacted the lives of about three quarters of the families there. The developers are destroying the land on which they are building these factories, and the river has far less fish than it did before. One accident in the area would be terrible. And at the same time, the factories have created a lot of development and infrastructure, like villages, schools and hospitals gifted by the state.”

Gas Under the Tundra
Merzlotnik. This ice cave was dug in permafrost in the 1950s. There are many in the Russian Arctic. Its stable temperature of -12 ° C throughout the year allows the storage of fishes. Since the increase of the industrial activity in Yamal, there has been a decline in fish stocks. © Charles Xelot

But while Xelot’s images of the peculiar fire-ice balance are arresting enough as still visuals, there are also features of the setting that cannot be captured with a camera’s lens. “These huge flames in the tundra make a lot of noise, and they are incredibly hot. While I was photographing I almost burned my finger off. The atmosphere’s temperature is -30°C, but the closer you get, the more it burns, which is an impressive sensation. The tundra is historically a very silent place, but inside the yards it is noisy and crowded, and I try to make this contrast come through in the photographs.”

At the end of the day, the gas fields are a topic that need much more exploration, which Xelot is keen on pursuing so that his research can be disseminated to a wider audience. “I would like people to realize that almost everything we use in our daily lives comes from industry,” he explains. “I want to show that we are arriving at the limitations of our system, and question our role on the planet.”

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Spot. Light of an icebreaker in the storm. Kara sea. © Charles Xelot
50 years of the Victory. Stern of the nuclear powered ice-breaker, “50 years of the Victory”, preparing to tow a vessel in the Kara sea. She is the biggest ice-breaker in service in the world. During the winter, she opens the way in the Kara sea, helping tankers and cargo to reach the industrial site of the Yamal peninsula. © Charles Xelot
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Flare. During the drilling of a new well, the gas is burned until the pressure stabilizes. This dangerous procedure is usually carried out at a height but, since the tundra is uninhabited, it is done here at ground level. © Charles Xelot
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Gas factory. Part of the facility used to liquify gas. © Charles Xelot
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Fedor Litke. LNG tanker at berth in an arctic port. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
LNG Tank. The interior of an LNG tank under construction. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Strait of the Ob river. Ice is broken and then pushed back by the thrusters of an icebreaker. This maneuver aims to free up space to rotate the ship. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Merzlotnik. This ice cave was dug in permafrost in the 1950s. There are many in the Russian Arctic. Its stable temperature of -12 ° C throughout the year allows the storage of fishes. Since the increase of the industrial activity in Yamal, there has been a decline in fish stocks. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Fish storage. Workers posing at the entrance of an ice cave used to store fish. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Grégory, a Nenets and semi-nomadic reindeer herder, in his Chum. He lives about ten kilometers from the Sabetta site. For three years, the environment has changed radically and he plans to move his camps. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Nenets family. Family of Nenets with their party clothes for the day of the celebration of the reindeer, in Noviy port in the Yamal peninsula. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Reindeer race. The reindeer race is a traditional Nenets life event that takes place every year in almost all the villages of the Gida and Yamal Peninsula.This race was organized in the village of Noviy Port by Gazprom, which used it for its communications. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Sabetta. General view of the Sabetta industrial site on the Yamal Peninsula in 2016. It is currently the most ambitious industrial project in the Arctic area. Gas will be extracted from more than 15 wells before being shipped by sea around the world. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Slava. Outside it is -36 ° C. Slava has a fever. The day before, he went to the Sabetta site 20 km away. He bought bread at the factory’s shops. On the way back, he was caught in the night in a violent snowstorm. His snowmobile ran out of gas at 5 km from his Chum, and he had to finish the walk. He returned at 5 o’clock in the morning. © Charles Xelot
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Sabetta in 2018. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Above the cloud. Aerial view of a gas factory. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Tanker LNG. Tank inside an LNG tanker intended to receive the gas extracted from the tundra. Fifteen icebreaker tankers are built specially for the industrial plants of the Yamal peninsula. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Containers. Containers at night. The very low temperature and high humidity create an effect of light diffusion. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Aurora Borealis. The powerful lights of an icebreaker illuminate the white sea. Artficial light is mixed with that of a northern aurora. In the distance, we can distinguish the luminous halo of a city. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Grégory, nenets and semi-nomadic reindeer herder, in his Chum. He lives about ten kilometers from the Sabetta site. For three years the environment has changed radically, and he plans to move his camps. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Valves. Outlet of a gas well not yet connected to the network. In the background, caravans sheltering the workers working on the site. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Polar fox. Bears and polar foxes frequently visit the Sabetta site.The latter feed on garbage and carry rabies. Draconian measures are taken if a worker gets bitten. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Dima is having a nap while waiting for the snow storm to finish. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Smoke coming from a boat on the frozen Kara sea. © Charles Xelot
Gas Under the Tundra
Kara sea. Channel forming in the pack ice during the separation of two ice sheets. © Charles Xelot

TAGS : arctic tundra region, Kara sea

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