State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Glaciers Disappear: The Startling Photos of David Breashears

Mountaineer, photographer and documentary filmmaker David Breashears is obviously a tough man—he has, after all, reached the summit of Mount Everest over five times, one of the very few people in the world to even attempt such a feat.

'Rivers of Ice' Exhibition Reveals Glaciers Vanishing, Climate Change. Source: GlacierWorks
'Rivers of Ice' Exhibition Reveals Glaciers Vanishing, Climate Change. Source: GlacierWorks

In person, though, the soft-spoken Breashears comes off less like an indomitable mountain conqueror than like a gentle soul who is deeply alarmed about the state of the planet he lives on.

Breashears is perhaps best known as the co-director of the IMAX film Everest, a movie that tells the story of one of the deadliest seasons on the mountain. For his latest project, though, Breashears abandoned stunning ascents in favor of a very particular documentary project—recreating precisely the Himalayan photographs of explorers past, in order to visually document what climate change is doing to the glaciers at the top of the world.

To do this, Breashears followed in the footsteps of some of the greatest mountaineers and mountain photographers who ever lived—including George L. Mallory, Major E.O. Wheeler and others. Using prints of their photographs—ranging in time from 1899 to the 1950s–Breashears painstakingly located the exact spot where each photograph was taken to duplicate it. In each case, the shrinking of the glaciers was visually apparent.

An exhibition of these photographs is currently on display at the Asia Society in New York. Last Wednesday, Breashears joined a panel of climate experts and activists to talk about his photos and what they signify.

Comparing the old with the new. Source: GlacierWorks
Comparing the old with the new. Source: GlacierWorks

“Most frozen things on Earth are melting,” said well-known climate activist Bill McKibben, “there should be nothing mysterious about what is happening here.” The melting of the glaciers is just one of many “obvious symptoms of a disease that we have more than enough evidence to diagnose.”

Indian climate scientist and glaciologist Syed Iqbal Hasnain spoke about the problems of collecting good, on-the-ground, time-series data from a region as unforgiving as the high-altitude Himalayas, and the need for much more precise fieldwork. Challenges researchers face include a lack of willingness by Himalaya border nations–each of whom have border security concerns–to cooperate and share data.

Breashears seconded Hasnain’s assessment, and pointed out that because of these difficulties he, who is not a scientist, has “seen more glaciers than any scientist in the region.” While much can be done with climate models and satellite imagery, Breashears said, on the ground observation by more scientists was also vital. Satellite photographs, because they are shot from above, can provide insight into the horizontal ablation of glaciers, but do not do a great job at measuring vertical ablation. In other words, someone has to see the sides of the mountains—with all their peaks, ridges and crevices—in person.

Breashears photos show ice loss in detail. Source: GlacierWorks
Breashears photos show ice loss in detail. Source: GlacierWorks

Hasnain also spoke of the regional problem of black carbon, commonly thought of as soot. Because of the rapid increase in industrialization, including widespread coal-burning for home heating and cooking, much of Asia now sits under a “brown cloud” of particulate matter, which—aside from it’s negative health effects on the population—also accumulates in Himalayan snow, darkening it. This darkening decreases snow reflectivity, or albedo, causing it to heat up and melt faster from the sun, in a positive feedback loop.

Hasnain believes that the black carbon problem is particularly acute in the Himalayas because of extensive military activity—mostly in diesel trucks—on the borders between India, China and Pakistan.

Orville Schell, a journalist who has traveled in and written extensively about Asia, spoke about the potential regional effects of Himalayan glacier melt, emphasizing the problem of seasonal water flow. Many areas in a Himalayan watershed receive the vast majority of their precipitation in a very short period; that seasonality is mitigated by low water flows from the glaciers.

Schell was particularly concerned about the Yellow River, “without which there would be no Chinese civilization,” he said, but which in recent years has been so dry that it fails to even reach the sea.

Several panelists addressed the paradox of dams, which were built in part to deliver clean, renewable energy, but had the effect of drying up the country.

(For more on the complex effects of glacier melt on the region, see Columbia Water Center Director Upmanu Lall’s piece, “Himalayn Glacier Melt: The Real Problem”)

At the end of the question and answer session, one member of the audience rose to challenge the validity of what appeared to be irrefutable evidence of climate change. Claiming to have a PhD in physics, the gentleman suggested that the clear change in glacier cover on the mountains could just as easily be explained by tourism.

He then questioned the credibility of Dr. Hasnain (several years ago, Dr. Hasnain was misquoted in a journal to the effect that the Himalayan glaciers would all be gone by 2035). The questioner concluded by stating that “basic Archimedes” told us that the melting of the Arctic ice would not raise sea levels. (It is not Arctic ice that will raise sea levels, however, but the melting of land-based ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland).

McKibben was incensed. “This just shows what we’re up against with the climate deniers,” he said. In the face of stunning visual confirmation of 350 to 400 feet of vertical ice loss from glaciers, that the questioner could suggest the ice loss was cause by tourism seemed incredible.

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13 years ago

Fantastic. I love these before and after glacier photos and films we’ve been seeing over the last year or so. They document changing climate all over the globe in a dramatic and interesting fashion. But alas, melting glaciers are evidence of climate change only; they are not evidence that CO2 is the cause. Still waiting.

13 years ago

This before/after Picture is amazing!

3 years ago

Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, our awareness of nature conservation has not changed.