Then and Now: Understanding John Muir’s Ideology

A recent article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism by Emily Brady explores John Muir’s engagement with the natural world. The article, “John Muir’s Environmental Aesthetics,” emphasizes Muir’s interest in the sublime; his interlaced world view of religion, science and aesthetics; and his belief that fully immersive experiences provide an opening to the natural world.

John Muir (Source: Library of Congress).

Brady, a professor of environmental philosophy at Texas A&M University, argues that Muir creates a pluralistic aesthetic bringing together aesthetic, scientific and spiritual ideas. This bridge is connected to Muir’s deep roots in environmental protection and ethics. In order to be a modern steward of the environment, Brady argues that this world view retains its importance.

A Scottish-American naturalist, author, glaciologist, and advocate for wild spaces, Muir has an enduring ideology of “wildness” and what “wild” spaces look like: scenery untouched, undeveloped, and undisturbed by humanity. Over a century after Muir’s death, the very existence of such places has come into question.

In the Muirian framework, we can distinguish what is and is not the “natural world.” There are varying perceptions of what “wilderness” is. A lot of the time it refers to spaces devoid of people, though historically-speaking this would be incorrect since many so-called wilderness areas have been inhavited and modified by indigenous people. Recently, with the age of the Anthropocene, there is an emerging view that humans have commandeered all of the world’s wild spaces.

Brady disagrees with this view. “This idea takes agency away from the natural world. If everything has been affected, it negates the life of all other creatures,” she told GlacierHub. “Nature has the ability to renew itself, so it seems unfair to assume that we have complete control over it.” Though humans have a pervasive impact on the environment, Brady emphasizes that it is crucial to remember that, if given the opportunity, the natural world has the ability to regenerate.

Muir’s writings demonstrate an optimism and enthusiasm when it comes to the regenerative power of wild spaces. In his writings such as his journals and letters, we can see that he does not experience the sublime solely as a spectator; rather, he finds this feeling through the bridge of scenery and immersion in these spaces.

Brady talked to GlacierHub about this relationship. “There is the scenery, but there also is the embodied aspect, which is kind of unusual,” she said. “A lot of people will just see scenery, and experience the natural world from a car window or a scenic outlook. But Muir was such an incredible mountaineer, that he had a distinctive ability to get into glaciers and mountains.”

Alaska’s Glacier Bay, where much of Muir’s “Stickeen” takes place (Source: Ann/Flickr).

These remote and often unpredictable landscapes are places in which many people would likely feel a strong sense of danger. But Muir sought out these spaces, and once in them, he celebrated their beauty despite the hazards. We see this clearly in Muir’s short story, “Stickeen,” which recounts a visit to Alaska’s Glacier Bay. In the story, Muir describes the experience of nearly spending the night on the glaciers. “Doubtless we could have weathered the storm for one night, dancing on a flat spot to keep from freezing, and I faced the threat without feeling anything like despair,” he writes. But Muir was not necessarily inexperienced or ill-equipped.

These landscapes were accessible to Muir because of his ability to explore and experience wild spaces. Muir had the privilege of access and time to become comfortable in these “untouched” settings. In Muir’s lifetime and even now, there remains a lack of diversity in the experience of the outdoors. According to a National Park survey released in 2011, the majority of visitors to National Parks are white, with minorities making up only 22 percent of the 292.8 million annual visitors. Moreover, instead of focusing on reserving the natural world for “wild” spaces, many people are now connecting with nature through urban green space or rural landscapes. Green spaces within cities allow people the opportunity to receive the benefits of connecting with nature, such as reducing stress and perhaps even making us more empathetic.

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Named after John Muir, Muir Beach is a popular tourist destination (Source: Kuronakko/Flickr).

Muir, who spent so much time in the West and California, that several places are named after him. These places now receive many visitors each year. What would Muir think of these places like Muir Woods and Muir Beach, for example- Though they bear his name, they are littered with people and human-made paths to guide visitors through them.

The evolution of wild spaces may not have been what Muir expected or wanted, but these areas do provide access to people who may not have otherwise been able to trek across terrain to see the ancient redwoods and beautiful Northern California coastline.

Not to discredit the importance of wild spaces with humans; these areas still need to exist. But in an ever-expanding and changing world, the Muirian world view remains of deep value while allowing alternate spaces for connection with the natural world.

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Brady Glacier, Alaska Nunatak Expansion and High Snowline 2018

This post was originally published on the American Geophysical Union blog on September 24, 2018.

Brady Glacier is a large Alaskan tidewater glacier in the Glacier Bay region that is beginning a period of substantial retreat (Pelto et al. 2013). Pelto et al. (2013) noted that the end of season observed transient snowline averaged 725 m from 2003-2011, well above the 600 m that represents the equilibrium snowline elevation for the glacier to sustain its current size. In 2015, 2016 and 2018, the snowline has been at 900-1000 m. This is leading to thinning across what was much of the accumulation zone. Here we examine Landsat images from 1986 to 2018 to identify signs of this thinning.

Emergence of Nunataks at Point A, B and C at 850 m on Brady Glacier from 1986 and 2018 Landsat Images. Transient snowline on 9/21/2018 indicated by purple dots (Source: AGU).

In 1986, Point A and B have insignificant rock exposure, while C has a limited single rock nunatak.  By 2000, there is bedrock exposed west of Point A and B, with two small nunataks near C. By 2015, there is a 2 km-long bedrock ridge at Point A and a ~1 km-long bedrock ridge at Point B.  The snowline in 2015 is just above Point B and C at 900 m. In 2016, on 1 Oct. 2016, after the end of the typical melt season, the snowline is at 900 m. In 2018, the snowline on Sept. 21 is at 1000 m. At Point A the bedrock ridge is now 2300 m long and up to 300 m wide. At Point A, the ridge is 1100 m long. At Point C, a third nunatak has emerged, and the series of nunataks will soon merge into a single ridge.

The persistent high snowlines indicate the consistent accumulation zone is now above 900 m, below this point thinning will continue. The mean elevation of the glacier is at 720 m, and thinning is significant below 1000 m from 1995-2011(Johnson et al, 2013). That is far less than 50 percent the glacier is retaining snowpack, and widespread thinning will drive further retreat of the distributary glacier termini in expanding lakes, noted by Pelto et al. (2013) and a 2016 blog post. Brady Glacier abuts the adjacent Lampugh Glacier that has and will be impacted by a large landslide.

Trick Lakes: In 1986, North and South Trick Lake are proglacial lakes in contact with the glacier. By 2016, the two lakes are no longer in contact with the glacier, water levels have fallen and a third lake, East Trick Lake, has formed. The more recently developed East Trick Lake is the current proglacial Trick Lake, a large glacier river exits this lake and parallels the glacier to the main Brady Glacier terminus, going beneath the glacier for only several hundred meters.

North Deception Lake: Had a limited area in 1986 with no location more than 500 m long. By 2016, retreat has expanded the lake to a length over 2 km. The width of the glacier margin at North Deception Lake will not change in the short term, but the valley widens 2 km back from the current calving front, thus the lake may grow considerably in the future.

South Dixon Lake: This new lake does not have an official name. It did not exist in 1986, 2004, 2007 or 2010. It is nearly circular today and 400 m in diameter.

Dixon Lake: It is likely that retreat toward the main valley of Brady Glacier will lead to increased water depths at Dixon Lake, observations of the depth of this lake do not exist. Retreat from 1986 to 2016 has been 600 m.

Bearhole Lake: Is expanding up valley with glacier retreat, and there are no significant changes in the width of the valley that would suggest a significant increase in calving width could occur in the near future. Currently, the lake is 75 m deep at the calving front, and there has been a 1400 m retreat since 1986 (Capps et. al. 2013).

Spur Lake: It is likely that retreat toward the main valley of Brady Glacier will lead to increased water depths at Spur Lake. The depth has fallen as the surface level fell from 1986-2016 as the margin retreated 600 m, leaving a trimline evident in the 2016 imagery.

Oscar Lake: Has experienced rapid growth with the collapse of the terminus tongue. Depth measurements indicate much of the calving front, which has increased by an order of magnitude since 1986, is over 100 m. The tongue, as seen in a 2014 Google Earth image, will continue to collapse, and water depth should increase as well. The central narrow tongue has retreated less than 200 m since 1986, but the majority of the glacier front has retreated more than 1 km since 1986.

Abyss Lake: Continued retreat will lead to calving width expansion. The retreat from 1986 to 2016 has been 400 m. The water depth has been above 150 m at the calving front for sometime and should remain high.

Emergence of nunataks at Point A, B and C at 850 m on Brady Glacier from 2000 and 2015 Landsat Images. Transient snowline on 9/21/2018 indicated by purple dots (Source: AGU).

 

Landsat image of Brady Glacier on 9/21/2018 indicating the snowline (purple dots) and the emerging nunataks at Point A-C. Lakes noted are: A=Abyss, B=Bearhole, D=Dixon, N=North Deception, O=Oscar, Sd=South Dixon, Sp=Spur, T=Trick (Source: AGU).

 

Landsat image of Brady Glacier on 10/1/2016 indicating the snowline (purple dots) and the emerging nunataks at Point A-C (Source: AGU).

 

 

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Photo Friday: Massive Landslide in Glacier Bay National Park

This summer a 4,000-foot mountainside collapsed on the Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. Sightseeing and charter flight pilot Paul Swanstrom was the first to discover and photograph the massive landslide after he noticed a large cloud of dust over the glacier.

This region in Alaska is very geologically active and landslides are common there. However, Colin Stark, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, told Alaska Dispatch News that the movement of 130 million tons of earth was “exceptionally large.”

 

Photography of newly exposed mountainside and debris cloud. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com).

 

Photography of June 28 landslide taken the next day. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com).

 

Side view of the massive landslide that flowed nearly six miles across Lamplight Glacier. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com)

 

Photography taken by Paul Swanstrom, pilot and owner of Mountain Flying Service based out of Haines, Alaska. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com)

 

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Photo Friday: Mia Baila’s “Portraits of Ice”

Mia Baila has been painting glaciers in Alaska since she first saw them in 2008. In an email to Glacierhub, she wrote that she describes these paintings of glaciers as “Portraits of Ice,” and wrote that the process of representing a glacier in a painting is similar to the process of capturing the uniqueness of a human face. She also described the challenge of painting ice: “With some glaciers, the ice is so twisted and convoluted that it’s as though I am finding my way through a maze or labyrinth as I draw and paint on the canvas. With others, the ice is smoother, and less complicated, yet no less challenging.”

Baila writes of the loss of glaciers to climate change: “I am very aware that as I make these paintings of the glaciers, most of my glacier subjects are melting. At some point in time, when the glaciers themselves are very much diminished, or completely gone, my paintings will serve as a record of the beauty that is here now.”

The paintings below are of glaciers in Glacier Bay, including Margerie Glacier, as well as College Fjord and the Mendenhall Glacier. Her website can be found here and she can be followed on facebook.

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Roundup: Glacier Paddleboarding and Ice Loss in the Southern Hemisphere

Paddleboarders soak up splendors of Glacier Bay for 4 days

Paddleboarding Glacier Bay
Michelle Eshpeter views ice up close as she paddleboards near McBride Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
Courtesy of Alaska Dispatch News / Sean Neilson.

“A typical summer day in 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve might see cruise boats, kayakers and anglers on the water, hikers on shore, flightseers in the air. And increasingly, paddleboarders paddling among ice floes.”

Read more about this new trend here.

 

Studying glaciers before they vanish

Thwaites Glacier“[A] just-released report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences…. concluded that the National Science Foundation — which runs U.S. Antarctic programs — should make research on Antarctica’s sea level implications its top priority, with a particular emphasis on West Antarctica. That’s because much of its ice is below sea level and thus ‘vulnerable to a runaway collapse process known as marine ice sheet instability.’

‘There is an urgent need to understand this process in order to better assess how future sea level rise from ice sheets might proceed,’ the report stated.”

Click here to read more.

New Zealand’s glaciers have shrunk by a third – report

“The government report released on Wednesday says the volume of glacier ice has dropped by 36 percent since 1978 because of rising temperatures. Andrew Mackintosh of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre said globally there was no doubt that human influences had caused glaciers to retreat. He said it has yet to be scientifically demonstrated in New Zealand, but it was very likely humans have played a part.

‘There’s no doubt that New Zealand glaciers have lost a lot of ice during that period, especially since 2008 we’ve seen a rapid loss of ice in the Southern Alps and iconic glaciers like Franz Josef and Fox have retreated dramatically.'”

To read more, click here.

 

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Round Up: Sounds of Glacier Bay, A New Book, and a Caving Video

“Voices of Glacier Bay” Soundscape Project

The National Park Service has a new project recording various sounds of nature in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. The recordings include sounds of: calving glaciers, humpback whales, singing birds, raindrop polyrhythms, and more!

Check out their website, with tons more sounds and videos.

 

Over 150 scientists collaborated on a new comprehensive book on glaciers

Picture of GLIMS book cover

The GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space)  project started over 20 years ago to record glacier movement using satellites. The largely never before seen data has been put together in a new comprehensive book by the same name which unquestionably confirms the shrinking of earth’s glaciers.

Read about the project, and the book, here

Extreme ice caving video filmed at Buer Glacier, Norway

Extreme sports buff and outdoor guide Sander Cruiming took his crew and cameras ice caving through Norway’s Buer Glacier. Read more, here.

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