Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty: An Interview with Michael Kienitz

Vanishing glaciers have been a topic of discussion for quite some time. One effective way of communicating this serious issue is through photographs, which may better represent the implications behind scientific figures and graphs.

One of Kienitz’s photographs from his book titled “Small Arms: Children of Conflicts” (Source: Michael Kienitz).

Michael Kienitz, a photojournalist based in Wisconsin, is sharing his experience with vanishing glaciers in an exhibition coming September 13th to the Chazen Art Museum at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This exhibition, entitled “Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty,” is a culmination of Kienitz’s five-year work collecting images from southeast Iceland and captures some of the ice caves and glacial formations in the region’s glacial tongues.

Svinafellsjokul glacial tongue, southeast. Image taken with a drone (Source: Michael Kienitz).

Kienitz started his formal training in photography in college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has been a photographer ever since, for over 40 years. As a college student, he witnessed firsthand how the local media failed to portray the full picture of the Vietnam peace protests on campus. This motivated him to start documenting the scene with his own camera. Thus began a professional career as a war photographer. His award-winning photography has been featured in various publications including Life, Time, and Newsweek.

While Kienitz’s works have been recognized for their various themes, he says his life-long pursuit focuses on one specific topic: Icelandic glaciers, the subject of the exhibition. The glaciers of Iceland cover approximately 11 percent of the country’s landscape, with a total area of 100,000 km2. These are temperate and low-altitude glaciers, meaning they retreat dramatically with temperature increase, unlike high altitude polar glaciers. In 2014, for example, Okjökull, a glacier in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, lost too much of its mass to be considered a glacier, no longer capable of moving under its own weight.

After spending time in southeast Iceland, Kienitz witnessed the retreat of Icelandic glaciers. In the following interview, he explains the process of documenting the photos and videos for his upcoming exhibition.

Seals relaxing near open water at Jokulsarlon, Iceland. Image captured with a drone. (Source: Michael Kienitz)
GlacierHub: Is it difficult to photograph in settings like Iceland?

Michael Kienitz: Having endured winters in Wisconsin, I was able to adapt quite easily to the moderate winters in the southeast Coast of Iceland.  I did most of my work then because the ice is the most blue at that time of year, and there are fewer tourists. I’ve been fortunate enough the last two years to have been able to stay in a house along the the sea just 15 minutes from Jokulsarlon, which is owned by the Iceland Writers Union. While doing my work, I’ve also produced videos and photography for local guides and a local museum. I’ve also been fortunate to have met and climbed the glaciers with some of Iceland’s best guides who have shown me places only few people have ever been to. I was a war photographer for ten years, so I’m quite used to difficult environments.

GH: What are the opportunities and challenges of using drones to photograph glaciers? 

MK: I was one of the first photographers to fly drones in Iceland for photography and video. When I started going there five years ago, almost no one had ever seen a drone, much less flown one. Drones are perfect tools to immerse the viewer into the Icelandic landscape from unique perspectives. They also allow us to take photographs and videos of landscapes that are dangerous to be documenting on site. In the beginning I had to carry around fairly large drones, but the technology has improved immensely, and I can now easily carry my camera gear as well as a drone and several batteries.

Ice cave visitor examining a moulon at Vatnajokull National Park southeast Iceland (Souce: Michael Kienitz).

For my upcoming exhibition at the Chazen Art Museum, I will be using drone footage to show wide dramatic shots of the terrain, so that the viewer can more easily understand the context of the ice caves and glacial tongues which will also appear in my still images.

Drones are now much more highly regulated in Iceland, and to fly in the national parks you must have a permit. I was fortunate to have been given a two month permit this year to fly drones in the national parks. I plan on giving some of my works to the national park of Iceland for their courtesy.

Ice cave climber near Falljokull Glacial tongue (Source: Michael Kienitz).

GH: What do you like best about Iceland, and what surprised you most?

MK: Iceland, particularly where I went to take pictures of the glaciers, is pristine, but also visually dynamic, as it continually changes. A lot of the glaciers that I take photographs of can dramatically change in weeks and sometimes vanish completely in months. One of the most surprising things I’ve experienced is the incredible changes due to the rising sea-level and increasing temperatures in southeast Iceland, particularly in the Jokulsarlon area of Vatnajokull National Park.

GH: What is your next idea for photography?

MK: My work in Iceland may be a lifelong pursuit. Some models indicate that Iceland will no longer have glaciers in 2080. I’m documenting the astounding beauty of them and their anatomy like ice caves while they still exist, and printing them on archival aluminum, so that future generations can see for themselves the majesty of glaciers and the timeline of its continual changes and disappearance. For example, an extremely deep ice cave, which went from a beautiful ice arch to nothing but stones and gravels over a period of 18 months.



Using Kayaks and Drones to Explore Glaciers

Field study sounds cool: a group of scientists take boats out into untraveled waters on an important scientific mission, even witnessing extraordinary scenery like an iceberg calving event along the journey. However, the breathtaking beauty of such a trip can also come at a price, sometimes even human life!

“I like working in Alaska, but I face the difficulties of any ice or ocean research project,” said Erin Pettit, an associate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pettit finds it hard to find a reliable boat and captain for her trips, and too much ice in the fjord often limits how close she can get to the glaciers. The risks to her personal safety rise when she has to work on cold or rainy days.

A group of scientists are collecting data from Le Conte Glacier (source: Cal Dail/Flickr).

“It can be really dangerous in Alaska, so we send the kayaks out,” said June Marion, the principal engineer for a new study using remote-controlled kayaks to research Le Conte Glacier. The oceanic robotic kayaks are controlled by a laptop a few miles away, according to Marion.

“When the calving event happens and an iceberg falls onto the kayak, we do not need to sacrifice valuable human life,” she said. “More importantly, the kayak can go further into unexplored regions. We are more hopeful to collect data.”

Mechanical engineer June Marion works on the kayak’s engine assisted by her dad, Bobby Brown. Working on the rear kayak is robotics science students Nick McComb and Corwin Perren (source: Angela Denning / NOAA).

With a radio controller or a computer, the researchers navigate the kayak by clicking on points on a map, sending the kayak directly to the location for study. The engine can even be started using a computer program.

“There are always new technologies being used on glaciers,” said Pettit.

Guillaume Jouvet et al. figured out another way for scientists to avoid danger during field work. They used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to study calving of the Bowdoin Glacier in Greenland in 2015. They combined satellite images, UAV photogrammetry, and ice flow modeling, drawing important conclusions from the results.

With UAVs, researchers are able to obtain high-resolution orthoimages taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, including major calving events. In this way, Jouvet et al.’s study demonstrates that UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modeling can be a safer tool to study glaciers.

Measurement of surface temperature of a glacier using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (source: W. Immerzeel et al.).

This technology has also been successfully applied to monitor Himalayan glacier dynamics: the UAVs can be used over high-altitude, debris-covered glaciers, with images of glacier elevation and surface changes derived at very high resolutions, according to W. Immerzeel et al.. UAVs can be further revolutionized to develop current glacier monitoring methods.

Scientists like Marion and Pettit are excited to see these new technologies developed to study glaciers and save lives. They are hoping for more methods to achieve this goal.

Roundup: Drone Research, Tianshan Glaciers, and Indigenous Alaskans

Roundup: Drones, Glacier Mass and Vulnerability


Drone Research Points to Global Warming

From Pacific Standard: “Aaron Putnam is an hour behind them, hiking with a team of students, research assistants, and local guides. He’s a glacial geologist from the University of Maine, and he and his team are here to collect the surface layer of granite boulders implanted in those moraines that formed at the margins of the glacier…The team hopes that data derived from the rock can tell them when the ice melted. ‘This was the singular most powerful, most important climate event in human history. It allowed us to flourish,’ Putnam says. ‘But we don’t know why that happened.’ Putnam is trying to determine what caused the Ice Age’s demise; the answer could help us identify the triggers that cause abrupt climate change.”

Learn more about how the study of glaciers points to our climate’s future here:

The research team photographs the landscape near the study’s sampling site (Source: Kevin Stark/Pacific Standard).


Central Asia Feels Effects of Global Warming

From Molecular Diversity Preservation International: “Global climate change has had a profound and lasting effect on the environment. The shrinkage of glacier ice caused by global warming has attracted a large amount of research interest, from the global scale to specific glaciers. Apart from polar ice, most research is focused on glaciers on the third pole—the Asian high mountains. Called the Asian water tower, the Asian high mountains feed several major rivers by widespread glacier melt. Changing glacier mass there will have a far-reaching influence on the water supply of billions of people. Therefore, a good understanding of the glacier mass balance is important for planning and environmental adaptation.”

Learn more about glacier mass balance and associated environmental adaption here:

An aerial photo depicting a sector of the Tianshan mountains (Source: Chen Zhao/Flickr).


Perspectives from Indigenous Subarctic Alaskans

From Ecology and Society: “Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities currently are facing a myriad of social and environmental changes. In response to these changes, studies concerning indigenous knowledge (IK) and climate change vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptation have increased dramatically in recent years. Risks to lives and livelihoods are often the focus of adaptation research; however, the cultural dimensions of climate change are equally important because cultural dimensions inform perceptions of risk. Furthermore, many Arctic and Subarctic IK climate change studies document observations of change and knowledge of the elders and older generations in a community, but few include the perspectives of the younger population.”

Learn more about the younger generation’s perception of climate change and its impacts here:

An Indigenous Iñupiat Alaskan family (Source: Edward S. Curtis/Wikimedia Commons).


Scientists Learn to Drone in the Himalayas

Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)

As glaciers around the world melt in response to climate change, scientists are rushing to map and catalog the precise ways in which they are changing. They have new allies in this fight: drones. But first, scientists have to learn how to use and operate them.

In late January, an organization dedicated to sustainable mountain development called ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) held a workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal on the use of drones for scientific research. The workshop addressed permitting issues, the use of drones in landscape mapping, and some future applications of drones. These include detecting and documenting flooding and landslide hazards, as well as tracking illegal logging and mining. Participants were also shown how to fly a drone and tested the machines out in the field.

Langtang Lirung Glacier © Funky Buddha/flickr
Langtang Lirung Glacier © Funky Buddha/flickr

Many researchers believe that drones could significantly transform our understanding of glacier dynamics and glacier melt. They can collect data on large geographical areas faster than ground-based field studies and have higher spatial resolution than satellite imagery. And they are especially suited to tracking and mapping natural hazards and risks, such as glacial lake outburst floods and landslides, due to the ease with which they can reach and monitor far-flung places in dangerous terrain. All it takes to launch one into the world to fetch glacier data is a GPS device, a camera and a little programming to design a schedule and plot out a route.

ICIMOD and researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands were the first to launch a study of Himalayan glaciers using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). The Himalayas, which supply rivers that provide water to a fifth of the global population, are losing ice at the rate of 9,000 sports stadiums full of ice every year. But what exactly is the role that the glaciers play in the water cycle of the Himalayan region? And how are they melting? There are many theories but very little data. The groups’ initial research findings, which concerned the debris-covered Lirung Glacier in the Langtang valley, were published in the journal Remote Sensing Environment last July.

Today, the ICIMOD and Utrecht University researchers are using UAV’s to conduct comparative studies of the Lirung and Langtang glaciers in Nepal. That project is attempting to address several key research questions: (a) how quickly and where specifically are debris-covered glacier

Launching a drone into flight. © University of Utrecht
Launching a drone into flight. © University of Utrecht

tongues melting; (b) how dynamic are ice cliffs and supra-glacial lakes and what is their role in controlling the melt; (c) how fast are the glaciers moving, or what is the ice flow velocity and; (d) are the glaciers retreating? The project leaders also hope to train local researchers so that they can use UAVs to monitor glaciers in the region over the long term.

Other UAV-glacier projects include the Ocean Research Project’s glacier mapping research on the southeast coast of Greenland. PhD students in the geosciences from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University are also using drones to investigate the glaciers of West Greenland. Still others are using them in the Canadian Arctic. Even high school students are getting in on the act. One group from Miami spent the summer investigation ice mass loss at the Kennicott Glacier in Alaska.

As drones evolve, with better technology and software, and scientists get a better handle on how to use and operate them, the research findings they can contribute to the field of glaciology will surely evolve as well.

For other stories on the use of drones in glacier research, look here and here

Artists Stage Glacier Worship to Fight Climate Change

Artist Ishmael Randal working on his site specific installation near the HAWAPI base camp © Maxim Holland
Artist Ishmael Randal working on his site specific installation near the HAWAPI base camp © Maxim Holland

In early October, Peruvian artist Maxim Holland attempted to make an offering of water to a remote and legendary tropical glacier in the Peruvian Andes named Pariacaca, which is situated 13,000 feet above the sea. He lugged 150 liters of bottled water up to the foot of the glacier with the intention of boiling it until it evaporated into the thin mountain air. But the firewood, sticks and cow patties he and the other artists accompanying him were able to collect at the site only kept the fire burning long enough to consume part of his liquid sacrifice. The rest, he carried back down the mountain. The performance piece was part of a 10-day retreat into the Peruvian Andes called HAWAPI 2014 that Holland organized to bring attention to climate change and its human and environmental impacts.

On October 6, Holland and an international group of 23 other artists plus a dozen Andean herders climbed up to the site just below the glacier, which is about an hour by car and two by foot from the nearest town, Tanta. They were accompanied by a pack of some 80 llamas that wound along the scrubby golden mountain trails lugging food and an odd assortment of art supplies for the group—huge copper plates, stretches of rebar, gutters, tanks of helium, welding equipment. When they arrived, they set up a solar-powered camp between two glacial lakes, and for the next ten days, they cooked, ate, slept, and battled the elements to create art in the shadow of the glacier.

HAWAPI, the Quechua word for “outside,” is an itinerant arts collective that stages art events in remote regions of Peru, and this one was timed to coincide with the United Nations Framework Convention on climate change. The meeting will convene in Lima in early December, just as work from HAWAPI goes up at the Lima Contemporary Museum of Art, a show that runs from Dec. 3- Jan. 9. Many of the pieces were installed permanently at the site of the mountain camp, but documentation of their creation will be part of the museum’s exhibit.

The HAWAPI base camp with the Piticocha lake in background. © Maxim Holland.
The HAWAPI base camp with the Piticocha lake in background. © Maxim Holland.

In mid October, the Peruvian government announced that climate change had shrunk the country’s glaciers by 40 percent over the past four decades, and that the meltwater has given life to 1,000 new high-altitude lakes since the 1980s. Peru hosts 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, which are particularly vulnerable to rising global temperatures, and the country’s glaciers are the source of most of the country’s drinking water. Without them, the rivers will run dry.

“I think it’s essential that the Pariacaca glacier be incorporated into the imagination of every resident of Lima, because it’s part of their inheritance and today it seems a little bit forgotten,” wrote Alejandro Jaime, one of the artists who participated in the project, in an email (translated from Spanish). Jaime has  a long history of producing art that showcases or addresses Pariacaca. “So, I find these creative projects like HAWAPI that are developed around this mountain symbol very healthy, that they broadcast the glacier’s presence and importance for those who drink its waters.”

 Alejandro Jaime working with the ice and snow on the glacier. © Maxim Holland.
Alejandro Jaime working with the ice and snow on the glacier. © Maxim Holland.

Glaciers have long been worshipped in the Peruvian Andes as sacred overlords of climate, keepers of rain, and they are still celebrated in annual rites called champería by many Andean communities, according to Frank Salomon, a scholar of the region.

“In any province in the Andes, most people have one particular mountain they think of being as the overlord of the climate in their area,” says Salomon. “That establishes relationships between people and mountains that have to be attended to. Otherwise, people are not in the right relation with their environment.”

Pariacaca could be considered among the most treasured of Peru’s glacier gods, particularly among scholars, given that the rituals practiced here during Incan times were recorded by a priest and preserved in a storied text known as The Huarochirí Manuscript.

The HAWAPI artists attempted to engage both with local environment and its culture during their stay in the mountains. The group invited residents of Tanta to come and visit midway through their residency, and some 70 townspeople showed up to perform traditional music and dances. Many of the artists also designed projects that gestured at ancient Inca rites and practices, and to man’s influence on nature.

Peruvian artist Ishmael Randal Weeks, for instance, carved a seat out of rock in a spot with a view of Pariacaca. The sculpted seat was meant as a direct reference to the Incan “Ushnus” still found all over Cuzco, stone carved seats often placed facing holy sites, such as mountains, and configured in such a way as to intersect with sacred lines that were thought to radiate out of the city. Randal also diverted a small waterfall near the camp through a series of gutters, to emphasize nature’s tendency to take its own course regardless of human interventions.

Pariacaca peak. © Maxim Holland.
Pariacaca peak. © Maxim Holland.

Haresh Bhojwani of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University in New York attempted to launch his Carbon Cube project—but faced some complications. He planned to represent with helium balloons the amount of coal burnt each day in the world: 300 meters by 300 meters, which is as wide and as long as the Empire State Building. But the balloons were too fragile to survive the conditions on the mountain. Ultimately, the group managed to represent a single second of coal consumption, 7 meters by 7 meters, using string, in a collaborative effort to salvage the project.

A couple of New York-based drone artists, Nina and Georgi Tushev, also participated in the project virtually via a tiny drone sent in with the group. Other participants included Colectivo ¿Emergentes?, a group of young artists who create public art happenings in Lima; Amsterdam-based Peruvian artist Teresa Borasino; sound artists and climate change activists Frank Cebreros and Nahu Rodriguez; and sculptor and installation artist Raura Oblitas.

Holland and two other artists were intent on having direct contact with the glacier itself, so they made a four-hour hike out from the campsite. But the glacier was very visible from the camp. “We had a direct view of the glacier, it was a constant presence,” he said.

(Read more about artists who incorporate glaciers into their work on GlacierHub, here and here.)

Llamas being loaded with supplies in preparation for the hike up to the base camp. ©Maxim Holland.
Llamas being loaded with supplies in preparation for the hike up to the base camp. ©Maxim Holland.