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Timelines Project Paints the Lines of Glacier Retreat

Timelines, a project created by Connecticut-based Swiss artist Fabian Oefner, used long-exposure photography to visualize change in two Alpine glaciers. Oefner and his team traced the historic outlines of two Swiss glaciers’ extents onto their current faces using drones equipped with LEDs to create glowing light trails. Dozens of images were combined over a period of three months to create the final product.

Trift Glacier with light-painted outlines of its historic extent.
The Trift Glacier with light-painted outlines of its historic extent. (Fabian Oefner/ Studio Oefner)

Oefner selected the Rhone Glacier and the Trift Glacier for this project because he hiked in the Swiss Alps as a child and saw the dramatic retreat in the glaciers on visits home as an adult. The Trift also happens to be one of the fastest retreating glaciers in the world.

The whole project took about a year and a half from the initial brainstorming stage to the completed images, videos, and interactive website, and involved a team of 20 who managed everything from web design and data processing to drone flight. “If you look at the final image, you might think it was possible to take it in one or two nights, but that was only possible because we spent almost a year preparing before those nights,” Oefner told GlacierHub.

oefner in front of white board
Oefner conducting research for the project. (Fabian Oefner/ Studio Oefner)

Oefner and his creative team worked with the Glaciology Institute at ETH Zurich to obtain the data they needed to depict the Rhone and Trift glaciers’ historical extents going back to the 1880s and 1950s, respectively. The project was done in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to bringing art and culture online, where it can be accessed by all at any time.

“Both glaciers are part of our network of Swiss Glacier Monitoring where frontal variations are determined. For some glaciers there exist continuous time-series that are longer than a century,” Andreas Bauder, a senior research associate at ETH Zürich who handled data processing for the project, told GlacierHub.

GlacierHub was also used as a source of information on glaciers and their retreat during the research phase of the project.

rhone glacier
An animated version of the Rhone Glacier image showing the glacier’s retreat. (Fabian Oefner/ Studio Oefner)

Once the research was gathered and plans laid, Oefner, two drone pilots, and three creative assistants headed into the mountains to create the images. The drones were specially modified to meet the needs of the project: they carried LED lights visible from several miles away and were made capable of staying in the air for long periods of time.

The team also programmed the drones to fly about five meters above the glaciers’ surfaces as they traced the lines of the glaciers’ historic extents, but the topographic model wasn’t always accurate: “A drone’s light suddenly stopped and we knew we had a problem. Sure enough, the next day we found the drone scattered into a thousand pieces,” Oefner said.

two people working on a drone
One of the modified drones and two team members. (Fabian Oefner/ Studio Oefner)

They shot the images over the course of several nights, facing temperatures below freezing as they performed flight after flight of the drones. In preparation for the editing process, Oefner kept a log of which flight and image corresponded to which year.

“It’s fun to come up with an idea, but when you start working on it, you realize it’s going to take a bit longer and it’s going to be a bit harder to do than you imagined. But eventually everything worked out,” he continued.

Interactive, high-definition versions of the final images along with explanations of how Oefner and his team created the images are available on a website created to display the project. On a separate page, videos showing the movement of the drones can be watched.

rhone glacier
A close-up of the image of the Rhone Glacier. (Fabian Oefner/ Studio Oefner)

Timelines helps the viewer explore and examine the phenomenon of glacier retreat in a thought-provoking way. It combines art and scientific data to bring viewers into fuller engagement with climate issues by whisking together decades of data and the beauty of the landscape to create a work of art. The glowing lines also softly illuminate the underlying mountain surface, giving a sense of the intimate connection of ice and rock.

“I didn’t want to force information upon people. Some will just look at the images as something beautiful to view and others might want to know more about them, asking how I created the lines or what they represent, but that’s up to the observer,” Oefner told GlacierHub. Oefner’s project interlaces the elegance of the Alps and the uncomfortable reality of climate change-induced glacier retreat to produce a final result that catches the eye and commands viewers’ attention.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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