Up Close with Klaus Thymann

Danish explorer and AC member Klaus Thymann is a walking multi-hyphenate. We caught up with him in December 2023 to discuss his work as a climate activist, his interest in equatorial glaciers and his thoughts on the failures and future of science communication.

To kick off, could you tell us a little about what you do professionally?

That is going to be a very long answer. I do a lot of things professionally. I have more hats than I have hair. So I used to work as a photographer, I've been a filmmaker my entire life and I’m an explorer. But my main focus is mapping. Without maps, we can't navigate. And without navigation, we can't actually solve some of the pressing issues. So for me, that's a logical first step.

I grew up as a teenager taking pictures and I became a professional photographer when I was 15. Then I became a filmmaker and the great thing about photography and filmmaking is that you can do whatever you’re interested in. If you like food, you photograph food. If you like adventure, you photograph adventure. And I've moved through a lot of different genres and themes in photography, but around 2008, I set up a charity called Project Pressure with a focus on triangulating climate change action, art and science. And, later, in 2010, I started a science degree. So I have a degree in Environmental Science and nowadays I would say that what I do professionally is focus on activism that is grounded in science and communication. I think, when we look at climate change specifically, science has failed on communication.


A lot of your climate change communication work has focussed on glaciers. Is there a reason for that choice?

When I founded Project Pressure, we wanted to create communication around climate change. At that time, climate change deniers were called “sceptics” and the media gave equal billing to deniers as to scientists even though 99% of scientists said that climate change was happening. That created a public perception that climate change was up for debate and we're still seeing the results of this now.

So when we started Project Pressure, we wanted to communicate in a way that was undeniable, scientific and bulletproof. Glaciers react to long-term warming trends. Glacier mass balances and mass balance losses are not part of the weather cycle, so showing their retreat illustrates climate change. And from an artistic perspective, it's one of the classic forms and so it made sense to create work around them.

The past and the present - recreating historic glacier photos in Uganda

2023 Meltdown Exhibition at  Kühlhaus, Berlin

You talked earlier about the failure of science to communicate, particularly in the early stages of climate change awareness. Do you think scientists failed because of false balance in the media, or was it a wider failing?

It's not a binary, it's not one or the other. The media played a big role in the problem and that’s also because most journalists are not trained scientists and most scientists are not trained in media. So you have two groups that are trying to do things that they're not trained to do.

The precautionary principle in science is part of it too. When you write scientific reports, it's a guiding principle. You cannot prove something, you can only disprove a lot of other things. So you cannot go out and say categorically what is. You can say something would have a certain likelihood.

When it comes to the environment, I think you have to look at the precautionary principle in a different context. Not from a scientific context, but from an environmental context. In an environmental context, that precautionary principle says that you don't destroy something without absolute certainty that you will not damage the systems. So one should take a precautionary approach to how we treat the environment. If there is a risk, the approach has to be changed.


I noticed that, perhaps in contrast to a lot of Alpine Club members, you’ve undertaken a lot of expeditions in equatorial regions. What is their appeal to you?

Mapping has always been a driving force for me. So going to the white spots on the map where it’s less documented was a big interest for me. I also have to say that when it comes to ice and mountaineering, there’s such a huge focus on the poles and Everest that it's not interesting. There's been so many other people there. I'm not going to be able to contribute anything.

By contrast, some of the equatorial glaciers are not named, they're not documented and they can be difficult to get to for a number reasons; conflict, logistics and so on. It’s an event just to get there and you come back with something new.

It also offers a different perspective. Those equatorial glaciers only have height. Once the temperature increases and the freezing point goes higher, they melt. It shows the effects of climate change on a global scale in a way that's maybe a little bit surprising to people.

View from inside a cave towards the dive entrance.
Tannic acid in the water creates the remarkable colours seen here

Thymann carrying a dive tank in Mexico

You’ve also done a lot of diving as part of your work. Do you think that there are similarities between mountaineering and diving?

So the diving I do is technical diving and a lot of it is cave diving. I would say the expedition mentality and the expedition planning is something that is similar. But ultimately it's very different. There are people in mountaineering who are risk averse and there are people that are absolutely not risk averse. In cave diving you die very quickly if you take risks, and in cave diving, we say “two is one, one is none”. Preferably there's a backup and then maybe there's a backup of the backup. If you're several kilometres into a cave, there’s no other option than getting back out the same way. And, if you know what you're doing, the limits are very well known. And I think, when you look at the way people treat mountaineering, people are forgetting the risks in a way that you can’t in cave diving.


To come back to photography and filmmaking - film and video are so ubiquitous now, how do you, as someone who uses it professionally, find what Werner Hertzog refers to as “the new image”? Something that's not been shown to people before.

Photography doesn't really interest me so much anymore. I think it's a medium that has done a lot, but as a standalone unit, it isn't a great vehicle for storytelling. Comparative image photography still does create a narrative. But if we accept that most people will consume their media on a digital device, it's the whole device that's much more interesting. You know, different mapping platforms different 3D environment and so on.

Project Pressure's 'Voices for The Future' Installation at the United Nations 2019 Climate Action Summit


Lastly, is there anything you’re working on at the moment that you’d like to highlight?

For a long time, I've been working on a story about the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and Congo (DRC). And we’re currently seeking archival images of these mountains. So if anyone has something lying around in their drawers, please get in touch. We're trying to build a database of what the glaciers have done in this region and we have some of the historic photographs that were published by the first expeditions in 1906. But there are huge gaps in the ’50s and ‘60s and there’s very little from the ‘60s up until 2012.


You can learn more about Klaus’s work and get in touch with him via his website: https://www.klausthymann.com/

This interview originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of the Alpine Club Newsletter. Previous issues of the newsletter are available to read here.