Spanning the globe to put spotlight on the climate crisis

A reporting class set National Geographic writer Craig Welch on the course of a job of a lifetime

Summer 2019 Edition


Craig Welch (j’89), senior staff writer at National Geographic, takes notes at dawn at 12,000 feet in the Ethiopian Highlands where he was reporting a story about gelada monkeys. The cliff looks out over northern Africa’s Great Rift Valley. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Kerby, National Geographic)

Craig Welch (j’89), senior staff writer at National Geographic, takes notes at dawn at 12,000 feet in the Ethiopian Highlands where he was reporting a story about gelada monkeys. The cliff looks out over northern Africa’s Great Rift Valley. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Kerby, National Geographic)

Standing on the edge of a speeding boat in the Persian Gulf off Abu Dhabi, Craig Welch mentally and physically prepared himself for what he was about to participate in: a sea turtle rodeo.

In a wetsuit to protect himself from barnacles on the turtles,Welch waited for the perfect moment as dark figures darted by underwater. When the timing seemed right, Welch launched himself off the boat and into the water in an attempt to wrangle and catch a sea turtle. He caught a couple but missed a lot more and had the bruises to show how challenging this feat was.

Hamad Al Jailani, with the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, hands a green sea turtle to Mona Mӧller of the Emirates Wildlife Society— World Wildlife Fund, during a research trip. Welch was in the Middle East reporting on a story about the global state of sea turtles that is scheduled to appear in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo by Craig Welch)

Hamad Al Jailani, with the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, hands a green sea turtle to Mona Mӧller of the Emirates Wildlife Society— World Wildlife Fund, during a research trip. Welch was in the Middle East reporting on a story about the global state of sea turtles that is scheduled to appear in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo by Craig Welch)

When Welch took an assignment in the Middle East to report on sea turtles, he followed a team of research scientists who were researching these creatures. A “rodeo” was the safest way to catch the turtles and observe their health. Since there were limited spaces on the boat, the deal was that Welch could come along and report on their work only if he helped catch sea turtles.

While a sea turtle rodeo is anything but ordinary, it was just another day at work for him.

Welch, who graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 1989, has worked at National Geographic for almost five years. Initially, he was hired on as a contributing writer and moved up to senior staff writer in September 2018.

“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Welch said. “I thought ‘Well, who wouldn’t want to work for National Geographic?’ So, I applied and got lucky.”

Perhaps it was more than just luck, though. Before National Geographic, Welch was an environmental reporter for the Seattle Times for more than 14 years. During that time, he and his colleagues won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the deadliest landslide in U.S. history. Welch has also earned several other journalism awards, particularly for environmental reporting.

Welch has now solidified himself as an esteemed environmental reporter in the industry, but during his time at KU, Welch didn’t know what he wanted to do and said he chose journalism after taking a reporting class. “It was really the first thing in college I took to,” Welch said. “I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I enjoyed it.”

After college, he took a job at a small newspaper in Wyoming where he eventually did environmental reporting. From that point on, he immediately knew that was all he ever wanted to do. It was also the perfect excuse for Welch to be outdoors. His reporting included grizzly bears, forest fires, and oil and gas drilling on public lands — all issues a Middle America guy growing up in the suburbs hadn’t thought much about.

“It’s a completely different world and made me realize how much I didn’t know,” he said.


AROUND THE WORLD

Craig Welch’s job has taken him all over the globe, and he has reported from all seven continents. Here’s all the places he’s been:
• The Arctic
• Alaska
• Dutch Harbor (Aleutian Islands)
• Antarctica
• The Antarctic peninsula
• Dominica in the Caribbean
• Costa Rica
• Puerto Williams, Chile
• Isla Hornos, Chile
• Paris, France
• Mediterranean Sea
• Ethiopia and the Highlands, Africa
• Cape Town, South Africa
• Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
• Chersky, Russia
• Thailand
• Sulawesi Region Indonesia
• Islands near Papua New Guinea
• Midway Island in the Pacific

So much stands out about Welch’s career that it’s difficult to know where to begin. He’s traveled seemingly everywhere, reporting from all seven continents multiple times.

He’s caught a sea turtle with his bare hands. He’s spent a night inside a tent on an island in the Arctic Ocean. He and a photographer both had shotguns next to their sleeping bags because there had been a polar bear nearby. Needless to say, they were a little terrified. Welch has also interviewed former President Obama on Midway Island. And he’s floated down a river in the Arctic for eight days.

In his recent trip to South America,Welch and his team camped for 10 days and were up against harsh weather conditions, with winds reaching 85 mph one night and knocking them off their feet.

Even after traveling to numerous countries throughout his career,Welch said he feels like a visitor in the larger world and everything still surprises him. He finds every place captivating. It’s a job where he never stops learning.

“I like getting a chance to see parts of the world that I would have never had any reason to go,” he said.“I love meeting people from cultures that are completely unlike my own.”

When Welch first started working as an environmental journalist, he was interested in how nature works and how ecological systems fit together. But now the clock is ticking. As climate change has become a bigger part of what he does, Welch said it now feels less like a fascinating new problem and more like an emergency. He feels more of an urgency to tell people how fast the world is changing.

A large focus of his environmental reporting is on climate change, which he emphasized is affecting every single thing on the planet in dramatic and subtle ways. Many ecological systems have been fundamentally altered, and Welch said there’s no going back.

When it comes to helping the environment, Welch’s main philosophy is that real science matters. The truth matters. And with that, decisions should be made based on science.

He said it’s important for people to do research and learn about these issues from experts and reputable news outlets and not to fall for fake news and outlets that are “manufacturing BS.” But it doesn’t just stop there. Welch said that after educating yourself, you must use that knowledge to vote wisely.

Interestingly enough, Welch does not consider himself an activist, but a factualist. He said his job is to simply find information and present it in a way that keeps people engaged, so they can make good choices themselves.

“We have to figure out a way to do things that put people first. We can’t be trying to make sure that one country is better off than others,” Welch said.

Welch interviewed Barack Obama on Midway Island in September 2016 shortly after the president expanded an existing marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Brian Skerry, National Geographic)

Welch interviewed Barack Obama on Midway Island in September 2016 shortly after the president expanded an existing marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Brian Skerry, National Geographic)


For all the adventures he’s been on, sights he’s seen and turtles he’s wrangled, Welch is also a simple man. He loves his family and hates being away for so long, especially when it means missing his daughter’s soccer games. He enjoys being outdoors and will go hiking, trail running or fly fishing any chance he gets.

For Welch, working at National Geographic is no easy feat. But he loves his job, has a great team and does life-changing work. One could even say that working for National Geographic is the pinnacle of environmental reporting.

When asked about his goals,Welch mentioned spending more time with his family and lowering his running times. But one stood out the most: “I’d like to do some stories that help make things better.”

Welch explained that his current stories do help but specified that he wanted to produce something that was clearly and undoubtedly helping people make good decisions.

“I would love to write a story and have people hold it up and say ‘Did you see this? This is why we need to get moving and get our congressional representatives to do something about climate change’ and have that actually help change things,” Welch said.

It seems like he wants what every good reporter should want — to change the world. “What kind of planet we leave for our kids has an awful lot to do with how we spend the next 10 years,” Welch said. “We need to not waste time.”

– Angel Tran is a May 2019 graduate from Wichita, Kansas

SHELL GAMES

In 2010, Craig Welch published his first book, “Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature's Bounty,” after learning about a huge investigation involving shellfish smugglers, the black-market wildlife trade, and undercover cops and federal agents. “Shell Games” received praise for being a thoroughly reported, well-written and compelling true-crime adventure.

Welch said the smugglers were like a small international mafia and underworld that people didn’t know existed. Not only is it a great detective story, but “Shell Games” also provides perspective on how technology has changed how we buy and sell the planet’s natural parts around the world.

Book honors:
• Winner, 2011 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award, Society of Environmental Journalists
• Finalist, 2011 Best Nonfiction Book Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award
• Finalist, 2011 Nonfiction Book of the Year, Washington State Book Award

Buy the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Before joining National Geographic, Craig Welch worked at The Seattle Times for more than 14 years, where he and his colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2015. His work also has been featured in Newsweek, The Washington Post and Smithsonian magazine. In 2006, Welch was a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Other honors include:
• Outstanding Beat Reporting, Society of Environmental Journalists, 2017
• Finalist, National Academy of Sciences’ Keck Futures Award for Science Communication, 2017
• Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award, 2014
• Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, 2014
• National Academy of Sciences’ Keck Futures Award for Science Communication, 2014
• Associated Press Media Editors’ International Perspectives Award, 2014
• Finalist, National Emmy Award for News and Documentary Coverage, 2014
• Online News Association Award for Explanatory Reporting, 2014
• Society of Environmental Journalists’ Kevin Carmody Award for In-Depth Reporting, 2014
• Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting, 2014
• Hillman Prize for Web Journalism, 2014
• Honorable Mention, White House Correspondents Association’s Edward A. Poe Award, 2014
• Finalist, James Beard Foundation Award for Coverage of Food Politics and Environmental Policy, 2014
• Overseas Press Club Whitman Basso Award for International Environmental Reporting, 2014
• Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market, Society of Environmental Journalists, 2010 and 2005

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