Wednesday, March 5, 2014

LOCAL ICE: Photographing Cascade Glaciers before they disappear.

Heating Up

     A sensible person with their eyes open can see that the climate and environment of our planet is changing: increasing temperature, more frequent and violent weather, melting ice and rising sea levels are taking place.  Even if it is just another one of nature's cyclic spasms and we are not accelerating it, wouldn't we want, as humans, to lessen the effects of our activities on the earth, in order to preserve our habitat? The simple fact is that civilization has adapted to the planet and thrived based upon a state where: sea levels exist at their present level with many people living in places within a few feet of them, moderate temperatures (relatively speaking), and adequate resources (with a constant threat to destroying wild places to obtain more materials)                     

     In a sense our beautiful earth is being treated like a supermarket, where we stroll the aisles with the Costco mentality of stuffing our cart with a heap of cheap items, to sustain our comfy standard of living.     However in the upcoming years items like living space, arable land, clean air and water, will not be available at wholesale, for they are not being mass produced.  
     And I am by no means a saint, since I'm writing this on a computer probably manufactured in China.  While on that subject, where are the resources coming from to fuel their energy behemoth?  In part from us.  Coal!

     The British scientist James Lovelock has some dire predictions for the fate of the human race based upon massive alterations on the planet that he believes will occur.  He is by no means a dummy having invented the first aerosol disinfectant, developed a means to freeze and thaw animal sperm, and invented the Electron Capture Device that was used to measure the hole in the ozone layer caused by chlorofluorocarbons.  He is not basing his predictions on computer models, but on what is actually happening.   
     Satellite measurements indicate that ice is melting so fast that the Arctic Region could be ice-free by 2030.  The United Nations panel on climate change predicts that the Earth's average temperature will rise by 11.5 degrees by the year 2100, and that sea levels will rise 23 inches.  But the geologic record shows that when temperatures increased by 5 degrees 3 million years ago, the seas rose 80 feet!  Lovelock claims that computer modelers just do not know enough about the dynamics of melting ice sheets.

     Also Lovelock points out that cloud physics, deforestation, and the melting tundra all contribute to climate change.  And the Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing.  The 7 billion people on the planet, plus livestock and pets, contribute 25 % of the total CO2, and the other 75%??  From a plethora of machines small and big spewing forth waste gases.  

The arteries of oil blanket the earth.
Pumping black energy to the thirsty masses.
Sever the steel lifelines, and we will all have to walk.

                                   How many noisy objects do we need?
                                   Of metal, glass, plastic and rubber?
                                   Suffocating the land and dominating our life.

Millions of moving things, 
so many loud metallic shiny things.
They run and cough and smoke, 
and sometimes even die and choke.
Busily streaming along where once grew plants,
like so many relentless soldier ants.
Eating up fuel, air and space,
What has happened to the human race?

     He refers to the Earth as a superorganism and has given it the name "Gaia" after the Greek goddess of the Earth.  According to his theory life is not just a traveler in a conveyance, but an active participant with the ability to alter the conditions that sustain it.  "If we as people do not respect and take care of the Earth, we can be sure that the Earth...will take care of us and, if necessary, eliminate us."

     Lovelock foretells that by 2020 there will be droughts and extreme weather, by 2030 the Arctic Ice will have disappeared, by 2040 the Sahara will move to Europe (with Berlin as hot as Baghdad), and by 2100 the planet's population of 7 billion (perhaps a lot more) will be reduced to 500 million.  The survivors will be living in the northern latitudes of Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, and the Arctic Basin.  And anyone still around by then won't have to worry about their cable bill anymore.  Food, potable water, and shelter, will be infinitely more useful than a smart phone.

Cascade Glaciers

     It is not my place to make a definitive statement about our glaciers, but simply offer up these recent photographs of the change occurring. I live only 40 miles away from the most extensive collection (although none very big) of glaciers in the lower 48 states.  It is a fantastic opportunity to observe  these unique landforms closeup, something I have been doing since 1972.  Besides their obvious beauty, they are a major source of freshwater for people around the world throughout the year.  Long after the seasonal snows have disappeared in late summer, glacier ice continues to melt supplying streams and rivers.  That same freshwater is good for salmon and other species as well.

     A glacier is a permanent snowfield that has acquired enough mass and gradient to begin moving.  Old snow recrystallizes and metamorphoses into ice.  The tremendous pressure of the ice pressing down on bedrock causes melting, water acts as a lubricant and enables the ice to move by basal sliding.  The accumulation zone is high on the glacier where snow does not melt away entirely in the summer heat.  Snow compacts and eventually becomes ice.  These upper zones also receive snowfall in the summer, since even in the Cascades it sometimes snows during June, July and August.  Summer snows add little to accumulation, but the fresh white bright layer of new snow slows melting due to the albedo effect, or reflectivity of surfaces.   Of course when there is virtually no summer snowfall, and temperatures are hotter more melting occurs.  The video below shows meltwater streams going strong on the Easton Glacier in early October of 2012.


     The ablation zone is the the lower zone on the glacier where the years snow's is melting away; and in (September) one can sometimes observe the zone of demarcation between accumulation and ablation.  This is called the firn line.  Firn is a German word meaning old snow that has survived one or more seasons, and is in a state of transition to glacier ice.
     When accumulation exceeds ablation the glacier advances.  An advancing glacier is characterized by a bulbous snout of cleaner ice, and may even bulldoze down brush or small trees that grew up during a previous stagnant period.  A retreating glacier has a dirty tapered snout of ice, and piles and ridges of morainal debris nearby, (lots of examples in our Cascades).     

     As the river of ice moves down the mountain the brittle ice (upper 100 feet) cracks in response to the topography of the bedrock underneath, and differences in rate of flow.  Beneath 100 feet the ice is more plastic (like Silly Putty) due to the great pressure from the weight above.  Icefalls are those dramatic areas of the glacier where ice is moving rapidly over a steeper section or cliff of bedrock.  It cracks and shatters on every side, forming spectacular towers of ice; seracs.

     I didn't set out to document glaciers, but mainly to climb up or cross those icy fields to reach many of our craggy summits.  From 1973 to 2007 I always carried a good SLR camera; first an Olympus and then a Nikon loaded with Kodachrome early on, followed by Fujichrome later.  Since 2008 I have been using a digital Nikon with minimal lenses in the backcountry to save weight.  
    During those mountain adventures I captured many beautiful scenes, including glaciers from different perspectives.  Seven years ago I began to pull out some of my photographs of glaciers from the early 1980's, and realized that I ought to return to the same locations and reshoot those glaciers.  Taking with me an 8 x 10 color print of the original photo, I would  day hike, traverse several days, or climb to the summits where the originals were taken.  I have the uncanny ability to remember exactly what camera lens I was using, even 30 years ago, so then it was just a matter of getting to the same location late in the season (when the seasonal snow had melted away), and shooting from close to the same time of day, to produce similar lighting.
    The best perspectives were those that illustrated the difference in the surface area of the glacier, and were photos taken from oblique angles (sometimes even summits).  Photographs that show the glacier in profile or straight on, show the loss in thickness of ice better.  I have also included photos of getting to the locations, since that is such a big part of this story.

    Now for my photographic comparisons: the originals were photographed between 1981 and 1987, and the comparisons shot between 2005 and 2012.  Although I have a collection of about a dozen comparisons at this point, six North Cascade Glaciers are represented here.  They are the Coleman, Roosevelt, and Easton Glaciers on Mount Baker, the Le Conte and South Cascade Glaciers along the Ptarmigan Traverse, and the Inspiration Glacier on Eldorado Peak.  I will include the years the photograph was taken and the location in the photo captions.
     The easiest glacier to get to and take photos of, was the Coleman Glacier on the north side of Mount Baker; an uphill hike of about 2 1/2 miles.  I taught ice climbing on the Coleman Glacier all through the 1980's for a local guide service (and still do volunteer teaching for climbing clubs). 
    Even so when I began examining my old photos, I didn't have very many of the glacier from the best perspective.  But I think that the following images show the loss in ice thickness really well, and  the dramatic recession of the distant Roosevelt Glacier.

Coleman & Roosevelt Glaciers 1981- 2005 from 5700 feet on the Hogsback Path 

     As you can see from these first images, I took pains to return close to the same spot where the earlier photo was taken.  The next set of glacier images were shot along the Ptarmigan Traverse that follows the Cascade Crest from Cascade Pass south to Spire Point, and eventually Downey Creek. The classic traverse is one of my favorites in the range for scenic wonder, strenuous but not overly technical travel, and spectacular peaks, lakes, and glaciers.
     Planning a Ptarmigan trip during good weather is a must (mid July to mid Sept.).  One also needs five to seven days to appreciate the surroundings, and compatible partners who know how to travel safely on a glacier.  Finding the exact location of the next shot of the Le Conte Glacier below Old Guard and Sentinel Peaks was not nearly as easy as photographing the glaciers on Baker.  A alpine traverse is a much bigger time commitment, and a change in the weather on the crucial day can ruin the photographic mission.   I felt that we were on schedule for capturing the same light on the Le Conte Glacier as we crossed the Middle Cascade Glacier on day two.

     Once over the Spider/Formidable col, the climber's path traverses beneath the southeast side of Mount Formidable across talus slopes and snowfields.  Holding my 8 x 10 print in my left hand and ice axe in my right hand, I scrutinized the distant scene and tried to align Yang Yang Lakes up with the glacier.  I shot some preliminary photos, kept descending toward the lakes, and finally in a patch of heather before the path dropped off steeply, everything fell into place.  Using the same campsites as in 1981 helped us reach the photo locations close to the same time of day.

Le Conte Glacier 1981 - 2006 from about 6400 feet above Yang Yang Lakes

     The plan was to camp at Yang Yang Lakes that evening, enjoy the warm dusk light on the peaks while slapping mosquitoes, and then the following day continue the traverse.  Close to camp Mountain Monkeyflowers dotted the lush green moss, as the summits of Old Guard and Sentinel flamed red/orange in the evening.


     In the morning an adventurous black bear traversed the talus boulders with ease as we climbed toward the next photo location; the summit of Le Conte Mountain.  With only a rope, water bottles and snacks, we scrambled up toward what would become the most impressive view of a glacier on the traverse.  Once up the class three and four loose rock, we reached the airy summit where I pulled out my 8 x 10 print.  The South Cascade Glacier had receded dramatically in 25 years.  The tapered snout had pulled way back from the pea green morainal lake below the ice, and much bedrock was newly exposed.  The USGS has studied the South Cascade Glacier and the link below will take you to their data:    

South Cascade Glacier 1981- 2006 from summit Mount Le Conte 7762'

     During the next five years I photographed several more glaciers in the Cascades (and even some in Argentine Patagonia), and finally last summer four in the North Cascades; the Inspiration, Boston, Terror and Easton Glaciers.   The 1982 photographs of the Inspiration and Boston Glaciers were taken from the summit of Forbidden Peak.  
     I planned a climb of Forbidden's West Ridge with a friend in late September.  The weather was supposed to be perfect except for possible smoke from recent forest fires.  If the wind direction changed, and the smoke drifted over Forbidden Peak and my target glaciers, any chance of completing my photo record would be thwarted.

     Although most color filters are no longer necessary with use on digital cameras, a polarizing filter remains essential.  Especially on days where there is a very thin high cloud cover that ruins the light, or in the case of even a little smoke, a polarizer eliminates much of the scattered light reaching the subject. By rotating it on the lens and viewing the scene through a single lens reflex camera's eyepiece, you can observe the scene improve.  There is no substitute for good direct light for making the best photographs.    Polarizers work best when the light is striking your subject from the side (90 degrees is optimum).  For the scene above with the sun overhead, a polarizer will do nothing.
     My partner and I picked a Tuesday and Wednesday for our West Ridge climb, got a permit from NPS in Marblemount, and stomped up the dusty steep path into Boston Basin.  We got a dawn start the next morning from the high bivvies in the basin, weaved up the wet rock slabs, and then cramponed up the shattered Taboo Glacier.  Ditching boots, axe and crampons a short ways above the glacier, we climbed rapidly up the dry gully adjacent the couloir (the couloir is broken up badly in late season), and onto the West Ridge.
    Forbidden is comprised of Eldorado Orthogneiss, and by Cascade standards is quite solid.  Climbing up the exposed ridge  was super fun; the day was clear (the smoke seemed to be lingering on the other side of Cascade Pass) and hardly any wind.  We shared the rocky spine with four lads from a Mount Rainier guide service on their days off.

     Once on the summit I shot my buddy traversing the very same spot that my previous partner had in 1982 after climbing the Northwest Face.  With my print in hand I directed my friend to nearly the same location, and then blasted away with my Nikon D90 using a 16 to 85mm VR stabilizing lens.  This is my current favorite zoom for use in the high alpine.  It covers a range of equal to 24mm to 127mm lens, and is compact and lightweight.  The following comparison photos reveal significant recession of the Inspiration Glacier.  This is purely a visual comparison and not a scientific one.

Inspiration Glacier 1982 - 2012 from summit of Forbidden Peak 8815'

          With cropped images one can get a closer look at the ablation zone of the Inspiration Glacier.


    Last in this collection of glacier photos is another one close to home, the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker's southwest side.  To get the shot it requires a hike of three miles and 1600 feet to a bench with tarns just below Park Butte.  All through the 1980's I spent a lot of time on Mount Baker teaching climbing, and a significant portion of that time on or near the Easton Glacier.  A typical class would last five days during which time we taught students all the right stuff to become a skilled alpinist on snow and ice.  On the fifth day, weather permitting, we would climb Baker up the Easton Glacier to the crater rim. 

     For my early photo of the Easton Glacier in 1987 I carried a 13 pound Korona Gundlach 8 x 10 view camera up to the tarns near Park Butte.  Of course in this digital age the concept of carrying and shooting film is difficult to grasp, but the Gundlach camera shot a sheet of color film that was 8 x 10 inches in size.  Each film holder had two sheets of film in it, and I carried five holders, ten exposures were possible on one trip.  The lens used was a Schneider 210mm Symmar, which was about equal to a 28mm wide-angle.  A hefty tripod, black cloth and light meter completed the equipment.  When I came across this 1987 photo I couldn't even scan it myself, had to take it to a lab where they did a flatbed scan of the Ectachrome transparency.  In the photos below one can clearly see the loss in thickness of the ice in 25 years, especially low on the glacier.

Easton Glacier 1987 - 2012 from 5000' on Park Butte

     I have included here two tighter shots of the Easton's snout (1987 - 2012), illustrating the loss in thickness better.

      Last summer 2013, I was fortunate to join Glaciologist Mauri Pelto for his ongoing glacier studies of Cascade Glaciers. He has been taking measurements and observations since the mid 1980's of the Columbia Glacier in the Monte Cristos, the Lower Curtis Glacier on Mt. Shuksan, the Shoals, Ptarmigan, Rainbow and Easton Glaciers on Mt. Baker, and the Lynch and Ice Worm Glaciers on Mt. Daniels. For a week in August I was able to accompany him and his crew on the Columbia, Lower Curtis, and Rainbow Glaciers. Below is a time-lapse sequence I photographed of his group taking measurements on the Rainbow Glacier, on Mt. Baker's eastern side.

   I have many more glaciers to photograph in the upcoming years; the Forbidden, Deming, Challenger and Lower Curtis Glaciers are tops on my list.  Check out my Vanishing Glaciers Photography Workshop coming this summer, where we will do day hikes to the Coleman and Easton Glaciers on Mt. Baker to further document the moving ice, and get great photos. Go to: to learn more about the special workshop.



  1. Awesome photos Alan! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks from a teacher helping students learn about climate changes. Love reading and seeing your work!