Photographers' Images Capture Global Warming's Advance

July 15, 2009
Bradford Washburn’s 1938 photograph of the Shoup Glacier where it makes an abrupt turn west of Valdez, Alaska. PHOTO © BRADFORD WASHBURN, COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA ARCHIVES.



Glacier Chasers: One records glaciers with remote cameras on an hourly basis, while another compares current images with glacial pictures from past

Two different photographers from different backgrounds have taken remarkably different approaches to document what is perhaps the most distinguishing visible evidence of global climate change: The retreat of the earth's great glaciers.

One of the projects is expeditionary in scope, gathering image data on an hourly basis from dozens of remotely operated cameras strategically placed at key locations throughout the northern hemisphere.

The other is primarily the effort of one individual who set out to take a second look at specific glacial locations in Alaska and the Alps that were first photographed in magnificent detail decades ago by one of America's last great explorers.


When re-photographed in 2007 from the same spot by David Arnold almost 70 years later, the Shoup Glacier had retreated approximately five miles. PHOTO © DAVID ARNOLD, USED WITH PERMISSION.

Together, the resulting photography from both projects reinforces the same unavoidable conclusion: the ice is melting, in some places very fast; and the world's glaciers are in a state of significant withdrawal.


While these two particular investigators using imagery are hardly the first to draw public attention to this precipitous environmental predicament (longtime SEJ member Gary Braasch has been photographing the climate story almost exclusively for over ten years now — see sidebar), the visual evidence they've amassed — in one case, over many decades; in the other, over sometimes only a few minutes — leaves a powerful impression that only pictures can convey. But beyond visual impact, both the fixed viewpoints and the temporal elements of the work of both transcend mere visual representation to provide quantitative data as well, especially the effort led by James Balog.

Balog is founder and director of the Extreme Ice Survey, which uses a multitude of remote cameras recording minute glacial motions at 15 different sites in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. Balog has gone beyond photography to become the leader of what amounts to a major arctic and alpine expedition. "My entire adult life has come together in this project," he states without hesitation, referring to his thirty years as a professional environmental photographer.

Like many others of that calling, his career arose out of dissatisfaction with a prior vocation — in Balog's case, one "miserable" year as a soils engineer for which he had trained by earning a masters degree in geomorphology at the University of Colorado. But rather than geology, it was the outdoors and mountaineering, to which he'd first been exposed as a student at the Colorado Outward Bound School, which primarily drew him to Boulder, where he remains still. And there was that desire to record what he was experiencing while climbing mountains, like so many others, that initially attracted him to photography.

As one of only a few in the late 1970s practicing what has now come to be known as adventure photography, Balog got a major career boost with an assignment from Smithsonian to shoot a story on avalanche control. Before that, he'd relied on carpentry and mountain guiding to help make ends meet. But in the years that followed, his photography took him in unpredictable directions that, while adventurous in their own right, hardly fit the established genre of adventure photography.

Five of his seven books to date have been devoted to wildlife, not in the usual context of nature, but more often serving to illustrate the complex relations and behaviors that exist between the human and natural worlds. Wildlife Requiem in 1984 explored the intricacies of hunting; Survivors in 1990 depicted endangered species not in the wild, but against seamless studio backdrops, or such other surroundings as the center ring of a circus; and his nude pictures of apes and humans interacting in discrete ways in Anima in 1993 were nevertheless so provocative that he couldn't find a publisher, and ultimately had to publish the book himself.

The advent of digital photography presented Balog with the opportunity to make a groundbreaking image of a giant sequoia tree in California that would have been almost impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive, on film. Suspended at various points within a network of climbing ropes rigged to a height equal to the subject tree nearby, he shot hundreds of pictures, each one framed horizontally level and encompassing only a small portion of the entire tree before him. The resulting image created by electronically stitching all the constituent pictures together into a mosaic with almost schematic symmetry appeared on the cover of his 2004 book Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, and is quite simply a view never before seen of one of the world's largest living things.

With such a background, it should come as no great surprise that Balog would approach his most recent project as something demanding far more than one man with a camera. In fact, besides its 27 time-lapse cameras at 15 different hemispheric-wide locations, the Extreme Ice Survey lists a staff of 35, and major support from such organizations as National Geographic, Nikon, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

The goal is to document what global warming is doing to the planet where it's most vulnerable to temperature change — at natural accretion points of snow and ice. And toward that end, the project not only "provides scientists with crucial data on the speed and extent of glacial retreat," according to its website, but additional photography and video shot at the various glacial locations "celebrates the otherworldly beauty of ice-cloaked landscapes" — a reference to such formations as glacial lakes and rivers found atop the Greenland ice sheet, and the eerily blue precipitous caverns called moulins through which melt water can abruptly drain to the base of the glacier far below.

It is toward these latter phenomena that the sentiments and sensibilities of James Balog — the mountaineer and photographer — are principally drawn. "To me, the story is not in the science, it's in the art," he explained to NPR's Terry Gross. "It's not about computer models or statistical projections. This is the real living thing, proof of climate change happening right now."

Referring to the experience of descending deep into a moulin, he continued, "Nobody's ever seen a sight like that before. It brings to the human eye and mind and heart a sense of grandeur

and majesty and exploration and novelty that people don't expect from something as abstract and distant as the Greenland ice sheet ... I feel like I'm witnessing something that no normal human should have a chance to witness."

From reporter to image-maker

Quite in contrast to the focused momentum of the Extreme Ice Survey, David Arnold came to the task of documenting glacial retreat almost by accident. In fact, he was not even previously recognized as a photographer. During his 25 year career as a reporter for the Boston Globe, union rules actually prohibited him from even picking up a camera on the job.

But after taking a buy-out in 2003, he turned to freelancing and discovered editors appreciated writers who could provide art with their copy, especially video clips to augment web site content. So he brushed up on visual skills he hadn't used since graduate work in graphic design and the first two years of his journalism career when he was a page designer.

As a reporter in 1982, Arnold was assigned to cover a story about Bradford Washburn, legendary mountaineer, explorer and founder of the Boston Museum of Science who had recently retired after forty years as its director. Appropriately, they first met atop Mt.Washington, New England's highest point, where Washburn and his wife Barbara were busy collecting measurements to produce a highly detailed map of New Hampshire's Presidential Range.

It was not the first such effort for Washburn. As far back as his youth in the 1920s, he'd embraced the craft of cartography after seeing skillfully shaded and nuanced lithographic contour maps in Europe during a summer trek to the Alps. He became determined to create maps of similar quality of America's great mountains. To accomplish that, he first needed high-resolution aerial photographs taken from a number of different known points around an area to be mapped. In the decades between the 1930s and 1960s, rather than just climb mountains in the Alps and Alaska, he devoted his efforts to photographing them as well. Strapped into the back door of a small aircraft flying up to 20,000 feet, he operated a 50 pound hand-held camera loaded with nine-inch-wide film, while Barbara recorded the plane's course, speed, heading and location at the precise moment of each exposure.

His efforts ultimately produced the definitive map of Alaska's Mt. McKinley. But beyond cartography, his photographs were striking works of art. "Epic in scale yet intimate in detail and shadings, they are more like portraits of individual mountains than landscapes," the Boston Globe reported in its obituary of Washburn, following his death at 96 in 2007.

David Arnold continued to report on Washburn's activities until he left the Globe, and kept in touch afterwards, even buying a print of what's considered to be Washburn's iconic image — a 1960 view of the Doldenhorn in the Swiss Alps being traversed by a distant group of climbers. Driving home afterward with his new purchase, Arnold remembers wondering what the mountain might look like now.

That was the impetus for his Double Exposure project: to re-photograph from the exact same spot in the sky a number of the mountains and glaciers Washburn had photographed decades earlier, then to compare the two images to reveal how time and climate had changed the face of the earth. In addition to cartography, "Washburn's goal had been to artistically capture the earth on film similar to his old friend Ansel Adams, particularly confrontations of natural forces," Arnold wrote in the Boston Globe in 2006. ("I just took a picture when I thought it was worth taking," Washburn admitted.) "My goal was to illustrate a chapter of the global climate story as told by retreating ice." When approached with the idea, Washburn was "skeptical that there'd been any changes," Arnold remembers, "but he gave me his blessing." Armed with that support, he raised enough funding through private donors and foundations in Boston to cover the expense of three trips to Alaska and two to the Alps, as well as obtain a hand-held 4"x5" camera in which he shot sheet black & white film. Altogether, he was able to replicate 14 of Washburn's decades-old originals from almost the exact same airborne vantage points, despite significant delays due to inclement weather. "It's not easy chasing the shadow of Brad Washburn," Arnold ultimately concluded.

Sending a similar message

The fruits of both James Balog's and David Arnold's efforts are not simply residing passively on web sites; both are actively circulating their work to as many audiences as they can reach.And some of the approaches they're taking are instructive to journalists concerned about how their messages will be disseminated in the future.

Rather than publications, both projects initially relied on exhibitions to report their results. The Extreme Ice Survey was featured at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science last fall, while Double Exposure commenced a tour that premiered last spring, naturally, at the Boston Museum of Science, and will travel to six other venues by the end of 2010 (next stop: The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh).

Both projects also solicit public support to help fund their ongoing activities. The Extreme Ice Survey seeks tax deductible charitable contributions through the Wild Foundation, which serves as its fiscal agent, while Double Exposure offers four different levels of corporate sponsorship.

In line with its magnitude, the Extreme Ice Survey has also generated a National Geographic story and book, a PBS Nova Special, numerous awards and its own special feature on Google Maps, where each of its far-flung camera sites can be decisively pinpointed. And director Balog seems tireless in promoting the project to any interested audience, from the Boulder Public Library to a luncheon gathering of House staffers on Capitol Hill to the Climate Congress last March in Copenhagen.

But despite their divergent approaches, the efforts of both James Balog and David Arnold seem to have been inspired by the same motivation that led Bradford Washburn to turn his considerable energies from adventure and mountaineering seventy years ago and instead build a world-class museum of science. "The great majority of our visitors probably will never be scientists," he was quoted as saying in his Boston Globe obituary in 2007, "but they will be better lawyers, businessmen, clergymen, scoutmasters, parents and citizens because of this fascinating glimpse of the wonders which lie constantly hidden on all sides of every one of us."

Roger Archibald is a freelance photographer and writer based in Boston and photo editor of the SEJournal.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue


Sidebar: Gary Braasch Covers Climate in Both Words and Photos

The glacial retreat photography of both James Balog and David Arnold exemplifies a growing trend in depicting environmental issues that has come to be known as environmental photojournalism. An increasing number of nature photographers, concerned about the deterioration they're witnessing within the natural world, are being drawn into its ranks.

Many of them formed the International League of Conservation Photographers in 2005, which has since mounted five separate Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions to document threatened environments at various places in the world (see SEJournal, Summer 2008). Taking a far more activist approach than any preceding photography organization, the imagery resulting from the ILCP's RAVEs is purposefully used to advance their goal of environmental protection.

Most working environmental photojournalists, like James Balog, started out as nature photographers, then were drawn into journalism by the desire to mediate what they were discovering.A lesser number, like David Arnold, started out as traditional journalists and turned to photography to advance their writing.

Perhaps the exemplar of the profession is Gary Braasch, who has followed both paths. This year marks his 10th anniversary (if that's the right word) of covering the climate, in both words and photographs. "I've made it the strong focus of my career since 1998," he says, the same year he joined SEJ.

That career commenced in traditional journalism. Following a graduate degree from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Braasch spent a year in the UPI's Chicago bureau before serving three years in the Air Force toward the end of the Vietnam War. At Andrews Air Force Base, the home of Air Force One, he availed himself of the cultural opportunities as well as witnessing many of the historical events in Washington during that period. Upon discharge, he became a freelance writer specializing in natural history and relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

Along the way, he'd picked up a camera for photos to accompany the writing he was submitting to publications on such subjects as old growth forests. But he soon noticed that "editors were more interested in the pictures than the stories." Going with that flow, he concluded, "It was worth putting my entire effort into the power of my photography."

The first major fruits of that effort resulted in a cover and portfolio in Popular Photography in 1977, but the 1980 eruption of Mt. St Helens just north of his Oregon home made Braasch the go-to guy for coverage of that subject, the aftermath of which he still follows. Major assignments ensued, including an environmental series for Life Magazine for which he spent three weeks aloft in a single rain forest tree.

The climate story has led him to 22 countries and all seven continents, much of it self-assigned and self-financed beyond two media fellowships he received from the National Science Foundation to support work in Alaska andAntarctica. In 2007, his work culminated in the book Earth Under Fire:How Global Warming is Changing the World, which was released in April in paperback by the University of California Press with substantial updates. Braasch not only shot the book's 110 photographs but wrote 90,000 words as well, attracting the endorsement of former Vice PresidentAl Gore, who deemed the book "essential reading for every citizen."

Braasch continues to cover the climate on the World View of Global Warming web site, which has become a popular internet portal on the subject ("I get e-mails from students wanting me to write term papers for them," he sighs), as well as his personal web site.

Like both James Balog and David Arnold, Gary Braasch relies on images of glacial retreat to illustrate global warming. He's been covering the story so long, in fact, that he's now starting to re-photograph some of the glaciers he first shot ten years ago, seeking evidence of additional change just within that short geological time span. And true to the tenets of environmental photojournalism, he's also managed to include the hand of man in his glacial retreat photography (see back cover), his own.

 ** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer 2009 issue

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