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.”  

At Family Game Night, Glacier Retreat is in the Cards

Glaciers Then and Now being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)
Glaciers Then and Now being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)

A game that focuses on glacier retreat drew a number of players at a community outreach event held earlier this month in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of a major international conference, the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW). The game, called Glaciers Then and Now, is played with a deck of 16 cards, each of which  contain a photograph of a glacier–some in black and white, some in color–and the year it was taken. The players are told that these cards form eight pairs of images of individual glaciers taken from the same spot, the second one decades after the first.

It’s fairly easy to separate the deck into the earlier and later cards. Six of them have dates between 1899 and 1909, and eight are from 2003 and 2004. The card from 1941 is in black and white, like the oldest cards, and fits in with them. It can take a little more thought to decide where to put the one remaining card in the set, which is from 1976. It’s in color, like the new cards. A player might have to count to see that it belongs with the set of older cards.

Before and after images of Toboggan Glacier (source: S. Paige/B. Molnia/USGS/NESTA)
One pair of cards from Glaciers Then and Now (source: S. Paige/B. Molnia USGS/NESTA)

The players then have to match up the pairs. Some of them are easy, because they have distinctive foreground features like boulders and beaches, which can readily be identified. Others are more difficult, especially the ones in which bushes and trees, which have grown in recent years, block part of the view. Nonetheless, most players complete the matching successfully. They then can notice the striking  differences between the two cards in each pair, and recognize how the newer cards in each pair show photos of glaciers with much less ice. The contrast is striking even for the pair that is separated by the shortest interval, only 27 years, The worksheet that accompanies the game invites the players to compare the pictures, and leads them to see how all glaciers in Alaska are rapidly retreating.

The materials for this game draw on a repeat-photography project of the US Geological Service (USGS). Bruce Molnia and other photographers travelled to glaciers for which historical photographs were available, and located the precise spots where these images had been taken.  The images were first developed into a game in 2007 by Teri Eastburn of the Center for Science Education of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. In an email interview with GlacierHub, she wrote that she originally created the game “for use with field trip students interested in learning about polar science and how climate change is impacting the region.” She mentioned “the power of visuals to tell a very important story.” The game was later modified into its current form by Lisa Gardiner for the National Earth Science Teachers Association

Elena Sparrow, the Education Outreach Director and Research Professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, selected this game, along with a number of others, for Family Game Night, a community event at ASSW held on March 16. In an email interview with GlacierHub, Sparrow wrote, “All the games and activities were utilized and children and their parents seemed to enjoy them. We estimated about 75 participants.”

Eco-Chains being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)
Eco-Chains being played at Family Game Night (source: Jessica Brunacini)

Family Game Night drew people from Fairbanks, who were curious about ASSW and eager to learn more about their home region, as well as visitors who were attending the conference. The other activities included puzzles that illustrate Arctic sea ice loss and glacier retreat, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis (a card game, developed by the PoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership at Columbia University, in which players build an Arctic marine food web, learn about the importance of sea ice, and see potential future changes in marine ecosystems) and a Jenga game of stacking and removing wooden pieces which represent permafrost, which is affected by warming temperatures and thawing. There were also some games developed by and with indigenous communities, including the Never Alone video game created by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and Neqpik, a cooperative board game that illustrates the complex flow of  cash, natural resources, and goodwill in a rural Yup’ik community on the Yukon River.  

The Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), held annually since 1999, is the largest international meeting of organizations involved in Arctic research.  It is sponsored by the International Arctic Science Committee, an international scientific non-governmental organization which promotes and coordinates natural and social scientific research in the Arctic.  Each ASSW  brings  together scientists, government officials and other stakeholders to discuss current activities and research needs.  

Native dancers at ASSW (source: Jessica Brunacini)
A group of Athabascan dancers and drummers perform at the ASSW International Arctic Assembly Banquet (source: Jessica Brunacini)

The 2016 ASSW, which ran from March 12 to 18, was only the second  to be held in the United States. It was hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A thousand participants from 30 countries converged on the university, where they presented papers and posters, attended cultural events and press briefings, and met for formal and informal conversations. They reviewed new research methodologies, including underwater autonomous vehicles—remote-controlled submarines that can gather data under sea ice. And they discussed programs that integrate scientific methods with community-based monitoring drawing on indigenous knowledge.

The recent weather was a major focus at ASSW, as Jessica Brunacini, the project manager for the PoLAR Partnership, described in an email interview with GlacierHub. “Alaska just saw its second warmest winter on record, its third winter in a row with abnormally dry and warm conditions, and it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the US,” she wrote. These changes are disrupting ecosystems, which in turn puts pressure  on the subsistence hunting and fishing which have long been central to the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region. Commercial fisheries, of economic importance in the region, are also rapidly changing. Speakers also discussed the influence of the warming Arctic on weather at lower latitudes. As they said, “what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

Despite these challenges, the ASSW had a positive tone. Brunacini described the conference as “bringing together interdisciplinary expertise and cutting edge research related to the Arctic and especially to the rapid changes we are seeing there,”  and noted that it can “help facilitate more of the solutions-focused discussions and research that is needed to effectively respond to the dramatic changes taking place.”

Northern lights outside Fairbanks, Alaska during ASSW (source: Jessica Brunacini)
Northern lights as seen from the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks (source: Jessica Brunacini)

It is striking that a simple card game about glaciers was featured at a community event, held at this major international conference on the Arctic. The interest that it held for visitors at Family Game Night suggests the connections among the different components of the cryosphere—whether glaciers, sea ice or permafrost—and among the communities that are affected by the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere.

Readers who would like to explore before-and-after pictures of glaciers can see the Glaciers Then and Now game here, and can also visit Bruce Molnia’s website. And another link is available for those who want to explore historical photographs of glaciers from around the world. 

Molnia says that he has visited around 80 Alaskan glaciers as part of the photography project. He also notes that he played the card game with students and their parents years ago. “Most were very surprised at the rapid changes,” he said in an email to GlacierHub.

Historical Glacier Photos To Be Available Online Soon

A recent grant to two institutions in Colorado will permit a large collection of historical glacier photographs to be digitized, making them more readily available to researchers and to the public at large. Until now, access to these print images was limited to those who could travel to see them.

Photograph of Hugh Miller Glacier, 1907 (Credit: NSIDC)
Photograph of Hugh Miller Glacier, 1907 (Credit: NSIDC)

The $148,586 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries will support a team that will digitize about 9,000 images, dating back to the 1850s. They will also prepare descriptions of each image to facilitate searches. The images will be available in the University of Colorado Digital Library and NSIDC’s Glacier Photograph Collection, where they will complement other NSIDC digital databases of cryospheric and polar material.  Some images will be placed online late this year, with the rest to go up in 2017. The grant is one of 18 awarded in a national competition, titled Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, conducted by the CLIR and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Jack Maness, an associate professor and director for sciences at the University of Colorado Libraries, is one of the principal investigators on the grant. GlacierHub interviewed him earlier this month.

GH: What led you to apply for this grant?

JM: We applied for this grant due to our conviction that these materials constitute an irreplaceable contribution to the human record and our relationship to the planet. But the fact is that in a digital era, collections such as these are often ostensibly hidden from most researchers. The archive at NSIDC includes thousands of maps, photographs, prints, expedition journals, and other items of interest to those researching the history of science or exploration, or studying past climate. Without historical collections, our quest for early data can only go back so far. Satellites and other modern data sets show us that glaciers are retreating, sea ice is shrinking, and polar oceans are warming. Records from the earliest observations reveal how unusual these changes are, and can document the first stages of change—a perspective made possible when archived data such as these are available. This grant makes some of it available, and hopefully lays the groundwork for making more available in the future, in increasingly accessible ways.


Panoramic Photos of Blanca Peak, 1960 (source: NSIDC)
Panoramic photographs of Blanca Peak, 1960 (source: NSIDC)

GH: Please mention two or three specific projects that have used historical glacier images in their current, undigitized form.

JM: One of the primary uses of the images has been in repeat photography projects, particularly those of Alaskan glaciers taken by USGS geologist Bruce Molnia. The images were also used in Ken Burns’s documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and NOVA’s “Extreme Ice.” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/extreme-ice.html) They have been used in artist books, text books, even children’s books, in addition to journal articles, dissertations, and exhibits.


GH: What types of users do you anticipate for the digitized images?

JM: Scientists, historians, artists, photojournalists, and students in any of these disciplines, especially those interested in repeat photography techniques, are probably our primary anticipated users. A handful of archives (at national parks, universities, and at the USGS) hold similar collections and have contributed to repeat photography projects, but many of these images are totally unique to their archives. A researcher must visit them and physically handle these fragile items in order to determine which photographs can or should be repeated and compared. Obviously, not all historical images can be repeated, but by digitizing, describing, and publishing them in the public domain our intent is to dramatically expedite use for anyone for any purpose. Ideally, we could one day work with other institutions and colleagues to provide a more comprehensive and accessible digital library of glacier photographs and related materials.


File cabinets containing historical photographs of glaciers (source: NSIDC)
File cabinets containing historical photographs of glaciers (source: NSIDC)

GH:  What types of analysis do you anticipate the researchers will conduct?

JM: In addition to repeat photography, there are users interested in the technical aspects of how these images, both digitized and born-digital, can be analyzed to obtain geophysical information. How might a researcher go about determining focal length, for instance, to be able to deduce the height of a glacier front in a picture? How might that information be used to analyze other properties of the glacier and surrounding terrain? Could additional geospatial metadata be added to the images over time in order to enable GIS analysis? Or, could an historian use them to further their understanding of arctic exploration? Could a photojournalist analyze them to tell a more compelling story of climate change? Or an artist better capture the beauty of frozen regions?

Perhaps more fundamentally, our role as librarians and archivists is to work with users to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of materials in order to support analyses not yet invented, even imagined. We are also interested in the sociological aspects of how people might use enormous troves of photographs and the digital record that is accumulating online. Librarians and archivists try to take the long view—I sometimes think of my niece, and what she may need in her future research. She’s a senior in an environmental science program and is at this moment in Patagonia studying glaciers. If she further pursues these studies, could she need these images one day? Will she invent new techniques or discover new knowledge because of them? My job is to make sure that is not rendered impossible, and this collection is but one of untold millions across the globe, all of which are of great value. I agree with the International Council for Science, Committee on Data for Science and Technology’s Data at Risk Task Force  when it writes “science stands to benefit significantly whenever . . . older sets of measurements can be transformed to electronic formats.”


Muir Glacier photographed in 1893 by Frank LaRoche (standing) (source: NSIDC)
Muir Glacier photographed in 1893 by Frank LaRoche (standing) (source: NSIDC)

GH:  You mention that the images could contribute to “public discourse.” Could you expand on this a bit?

JM: Bruce Molnia wrote in 2014, regarding the repeat photography project, that “the simplicity of the photos is so striking. My basic premise is, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s a pair of photos showing dramatic change worth?” I totally agree, and think many of these older images alone convey something quite striking as well. Images contribute to public conversation in ways words simply can’t express. The President  was probably thinking in that manner when he visited Alaska’s Exit Glacier. I think of the first time people saw images of the earth from space; the faces of people half a world away; or of landscapes utterly foreign to them—these were moments in history that changed us. Now, we live in a world replete with images, but what are sometimes lost are images of the past. Seeing these stark images of glaciers and frozen regions, sometimes with a person or a tent dwarfed by peaks of ice, gives one a perspective on the immensity of time and landscape. And really, these images are really not that old, but they portray landscapes that are in some cases totally different today. That perspective helps us see beyond our region and our lifetime; and that, I think, helps us discuss issues related to climate change with a humility badly needed in a public discourse too often rife with vitriol.