National Geographic photographer Carsten Peter has experienced the magnificence of our planet in ways that few humans ever do. During his National Geographic Live! lecture Extreme Planet, Peters brings audiences along on his expeditions to erupting volcanoes, deep inside incredible caves and in pursuit of destructive tornadoes. Shortly before his presentation, Peters joined Ship to Shore Productions at the Chicago Athletic Association to discuss his work. Extreme Planet runs at Goodman Theatre through Tuesday, April 5 and National Geographic Live! will return to Chicago this fall.
Michael Mellini: Your work has brought you to incredible locations across the world. How do you decide which intense topics and environments you would like to explore?
Carsten Peter: It’s always tied to my personal interests. I was 15 years old the first time I went to a volcano and I’ve continuously wanted to explore them since then. Every volcanic eruption is different, and the power of nature you experience watching one happen is incredible. Caves were also a big part of my life; I began exploring and learning the techniques of how to do so as a teenager as well. Pursuing tornadoes has been a more recent interest. We don’t have many tornadoes in [my home] Germany, so I had to make connections with researchers and tornado chasers within the United States.
MM: Despite all your experience in the field, do you ever become nervous or afraid when documenting volcanic eruptions?
CP: You experience these [emotions] sometimes. Repelling into active craters can be very unstable because you’re working with loose walls, and these can be the center of earthquakes. There is a huge amount of geological activity and often you’re traversing ash layers with rocks in between that can easily shift. It’s quite tricky. I’ve had some close calls with falling rocks.
MM: Aside from their visual grandeur, why is it so important to study volcanoes?
CP: Volcanic eruptions can have huge consequences for mankind. Volcanoes can turn around the whole climate of Earth. There have been eruptions in the past that have caused extinctions of entire species. It can happen on a huge scale. I’m mostly researching miniature volcanoes compared to those types of catastrophes, but whole cities can be affected by the aerosols and gases released into the environment.
MM: Do you feel like you’re entering a different world when you descend into giant caves?
CP: The wonderful thing about caves is there is so much to explore. You can’t really see how much potential a cave has from the outside until you’re in it. You can make new discoveries that you haven’t previously seen. You’re often submerged in complete darkness, so it can be quite tricky to illuminate these giant or complex cave rooms for photographs. I’m even surprised by my own images sometimes. When you’re down there it’s like you’re venturing into a starless night.
MM: Midwesterners may be able to appreciate your tornadoes stories a bit more than those about volcano eruptions and caves. What was your tornado chasing experience like?
CP: I was embedded in an incredible team of tornado chasers in South Dakota who were conducting a lot of scientific research. For me, it’s always important that my work as a photographer is connected with scientific research. We worked to get a pressure probe into a tornado, which was a huge challenge. We had almost two years without any luck, but in the third year we had an almost picture book tornado which allowed us to be successful.
MM: Are there are any sites or locations you think people must visit during their lifetime?
CP: The problem is the world is full of wonderful places, and life is too short to see them all. Plus, I love to go back to places to rediscover them again and again. I would love to go back to the Cave of Crystals [in Naica, Mexico] but it is now completely restricted. There are so many different types of adventures, it’s very different to compare exploring volcanoes and glaciers, but I think you can always create your own adventures. Even if it’s within steps of your own home.