Disappearing Ice and Invisible People

Repeat photography of Taboche, Khumbu, Nepal. Top image, 1950s (Source: E. Schneider, courtesy of A. Byers). Bottom image, 2012 (Source: R. Garrard).

People and communities in mountain regions that depend upon glacier resources are directly affected by climate change, suffering the most from impacts of limited water resources, outburst flooding, and changes to agriculture and the economy. Repeat photography showing before and after pictures of specific glaciers as they retreat has been a useful tool to document climate change, from illustrating how glaciers move and melt to how parts of the ice break off. It has enabled humans to gain a better understanding of these important glacial changes and the human impact on the environment. However, repeat photography does not capture local societal impacts well, according to research published in “Beyond Images of Melting Ice: Hidden Histories of People, Place, and Time in Repeat Photography of Glaciers,’’ a recent book chapter by Rodney Garrard and Mark Carey.

The authors discuss the limitations of repeat photography, a form of photography that compares historical and recent photographs to find changes within a landscape, and how it fails to provide a complete perspective of glacier retreat. The photographs do not typically incorporate the people and culture connected to the glaciers, for example, and depict climate change rather uniformly across the world, lacking the ability to show the variety of glacier change issues. While repeat photography can be useful in several ways, it is important to note what it is not capable of capturing: the greater perspective that is often quite more complex. 

Why do we need to capture the societal context, the culture and the stories of the people? And why is it important to point out what repeat photography doesn’t capture today? To date, the common tendency of most repeat photography of glaciers has been to vividly present glacier melt and over simplify downstream impacts, which is actually a form of environmental determinism, Garrard explained to GlacierHub. “Generally, there is no portrayal or even recognition of local people and factors that create differential vulnerability to glacier hazards or climate change,” he said. “While repeat photography can be a useful method to chronicle glacier recession by providing insight into key aspects of glacier dynamics, corroborate results from other glacier studies, and provide a greater historical reach and vividly display these changes for diverse audiences, it can simultaneously yield misinformation by generalizing glacier retreat and providing simplistic deterministic causalities, thereby creating its own narratives about glaciers (i.e., loss), which in turn influence scientific assessments, public perceptions, and government policies.’’

Sagarmatha National Park, 2013 (Source: Thomas Fuhrmann).

The chapter focuses on four case studies to illustrate the limitations of repeat photography as a lens to examine climate impacts: Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, Grinnell Glacier in the United States, Glacial Lake Palcacocha in Peru, and Khumbu (Mt. Everest region) in Nepal. Garrard and Carey examine how repeat photographs fail to include “hidden histories of people, places, knowledge, vulnerability, and the ever-evolving politics of glacier representation.” The four case studies provide evidence about how certain areas can be more complex than repeat photography can capture.

The first case study of Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, for example, is one region where repeat photography has provided knowledge about glaciers and their dramatic retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age. However, the repeat images do not include the societal context and economic impact of this glacier retreat. Likewise, repeat photography at Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park in the United States has provided information and understanding of glacier loss in the park but has failed to capture the impacts on local livelihoods.

Peru’s Lake Palcacocha, located in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, is an important resource to a quarter million people who rely on glacier runoff for irrigation and domestic water use. Changes in accessibility to glacier runoff leads to challenges in water supply, irrigated agriculture, and hydroelectricity generation. Other negative impacts include the dangers associated with glacial lake outburst floods. Since 1941, for example, about 15,000 people have lost their lives in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range due to these floods. Yet, there is no way to translate these impacts through repeat photography.

Similarly, while repeat photography has been helpful in revealing the increase in glacial lakes at Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park in Nepal, this region is also threatened by glacial lake outburst floods that can cause damage to the nearby communities. There are over 4,000 residents located in the Sagarmatha National Park area, and their vulnerability cannot be fully expressed through repeat photography.

USGS Repeat Photography Project: Grinnell Glacier at Glacier National Park, MT. From the left: Image one, 1981 (Source: Carl Key); Image two, 1998 (Source: Dan Fagre); Image three, 2009 (Source: Lindsey Bengtson).

Carey told GlacierHub, “When we see these repeated photographs, we lament the lost ice, but mainly through a tourism, alpine recreation, cruise ship lens. The photographs appeal to the urban, middle-class, environmentalist sensibility of lost landscape in a national park or a distant peak. But there are no local people, no residents dying in glacial lake outburst floods or living with anxiety about avalanches or worrying about dwindling water supplies or struggling to find jobs, access health care, or send their children to school.’’ 

In other words, repeat photography obscures social and environmental justice. It leaves out key issues playing out below most of the world’s mountain glaciers, such as inequality and injustice, uneven vulnerability to hydrologic change and glacier hazards, the politics of water allocation, the cultural significance of ice, and the political economy of energy regimes and industrial irrigation dependent on glacier runoff, Carey added.

Thus, it is important to understand the limitations of repeat photography and capture the societal context, culture, and stories of the local people. To do this, Garrard offers three tenants of a good repeat photography study: that the method is contextualized, systematic and combined with GIS/RS [Geographical Information System/Remote Sensing] methods as a form of triangulation. The authors conclude, “In terms of the larger picture, this chapter aspires to be an initial step in influencing current repeat photography practices toward broader participation from communities affected.”  

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