September 20, 2018 / 10:16 PM / 3 months ago

Documenting climate change - with a drone

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Reuters photographer Lucas Jackson headed to Greenland in June, he traveled with a heavy, oversized rolling bag containing a crucial piece of equipment to document climate change.

An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 18, 2018. New NASA data on water temperature, depth and salinity has helped explain why the rate of ice loss at northwestern Greenland’s Tracy glacier is almost four times the rate of the nearby Heilprin glacier. That’s because the fresh water flowing from Tracy, which sits on deeper bedrock, is mixing with a layer of warm, salty water off Greenland’s coast, accelerating the melting process, the researchers found. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Jackson, one of a handful of Reuters photographers licensed to operate a drone, spent seven rainy days camped alongside Greenland’s Helheim glacier, near the small seaside village of Tasiilaq.

Using an Inspire 1 Pro drone, Jackson captured more than 700 gigabytes of footage and images in Greenland (here).

Drones are an emerging tool for newsgathering, but they potentially pose several legal and ethical challenges, including the violation of privacy.

Until now, Reuters has used drones only on rare occasions. But Greenland provided a perfect opportunity since a drone is inexpensive to operate. By contrast, renting a helicopter can cost thousands of dollars per day.

The drone offered Jackson the ideal way to procure bird’s eye shots and video of icebergs and glaciers as well as footage of scientists monitoring rising sea levels, without disrupting their research.

“People are tempted to use a drone just to use a drone,” Jackson says. “They should be used to get a perspective at an elevated angle that would be too risky or costly to get without a drone.”

Reuters has a detailed policy on drone usage, as outlined in the Reuters Handbook of Journalism (here). That includes steering clear of people, homes, protests or densely populated areas.

“We should apply heightened consideration and sensitivity to ensure our use of drones does not stalk, harass, or intimidate any person, including any subject of our coverage,” the handbook says.

According to our rules, drones must be used in daylight hours, at specific altitudes and at a safe distance from an airport. As a result, our use of drones so far has been limited. Reuters journalists still typically take overhead shots from helicopters.

However, drones can shoot images at a lower elevation, often offering more granular details since they can hover in one spot without much movement.

In July, photographer David Gray used a drone to document extreme drought along with its devastating effect on cattle and crops in Eastern Australia. (here).

The drone let him quietly capture images of farm animals, such as cattle gathered in parched paddocks, without scaring them away.

Any Reuters journalist who uses a drone for newsgathering must be trained and properly credentialed. To obtain a license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Jackson studied weather patterns, flight maps and federal drone laws. He also practiced flying a drone with a Reuters colleague in a park in Flushing, New York.

Drones can keep journalists out of harm’s way, so they may seem ideal for covering natural disasters, such as a volcanic eruption or hurricanes. But even in these circumstances, Reuters will continue to use drones sparingly because their flight can interfere with search and rescue missions.

For Jackson, the biggest challenge in Greenland was preserving battery life. The drone lost power after 10 minutes, and it took another hour to recharge.

“I didn’t have time to experiment,” Jackson said. “I had to know which shots I wanted.”

Reporting by Lauren Young; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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