Toward the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy began mapping an area of northern Alaska extending south from the Arctic Sea across the North Slope and down to the forested valleys south of the Brooks Range. In an effort lasting a number of years, surveyors flew low in a small plane, snapping thousands of photographs with a large-format K-18 camera pointed out the craft’s open door.

About 10 years ago, Matthew Sturm of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and his colleagues obtained the images, which were about to be thrown away. By repeating the Navy’s exercise and comparing the old and new photos, the team has documented dramatic changes in the vegetation of the now-warmer region. (See “Arctic Plants Feel the Heat,” in the May 2010 issue of Scientific American.)

But the old black-and-white photographs have artistic as well as scientific value: many were surprisingly beautiful. A selection follows, courtesy of Sturm and Ken Tape, of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska.

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