Melting glaciers, warming seas
Photographer David Arnold sheds light on climate change in his recent Chico State talk and in his Doublexposure exhibit at the Gateway Science Museum
Climate change, offered Boston-based writer and photographer David Arnold, is “largely invisible to the normal person. Glaciers provide visual evidence.”
Arnold was speaking during a July 27 appearance at Chico State. His striking black-and-white aerial photographs of receding glaciers in Alaska and Switzerland currently hang in the Gateway Science Museum alongside those of late aerial photographer and mountaineer Bradford Washburn, in an exhibit called “Doublexposure: Photographing Environmental Change.”
Early in his slideshow/talk, Arnold referenced the latest “State of the Climate” report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which indicates that global temperatures are indeed rising. Arnold pointed out that the surface temperature of the oceans has become warmer, and sea water is becoming increasingly acidic—all the result of climate change due to increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.
He then launched into a side-by-side showing of the photos he took from 2005 to 2007 of the exact same glaciers that Washburn photographed between 1930 and 1960, and at the same time of year—and time, whenever possible.
What Arnold found was that in every instance the glaciers had become smaller, some by miles.
Arnold first met Washburn during his 25-year stint as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe, through his boss at the time, then-Globe Editor Tom Winship, a friend of Washburn’s.
“He was one of the last gentleman explorers,” said Arnold of Washburn, who died in 2007. “He took phenomenal photos.” (Washburn, it should be noted, took approximately 8,000 pictures of glaciers, using a huge, 55-pound camera with a 20-pound film pack while hanging out of the open door of an airplane to which he was tied by a rope.)
Arnold got the idea to follow in Washburn’s photographic footsteps after studying his 1960 photo of six climbers on the snowy northeast ridge of Doldenhorn Mountain in the Swiss Alps.
“There was not a rock showing in that photograph,” he said. “I wondered, ‘What does that photo look like now?’” The result is Arnold’s 2007 photograph of Doldenhorn, which clearly shows exposed rock where snow and glacial ice once were.
While Washburn’s Doldenhorn picture was the impetus for Arnold’s Doublexposure work (which has extended to covering the planet’s declining coral reefs), Arnold took pictures of several other Washburn-photographed glaciers. Arnold’s photograph of Alaska’s Nunatak Glacier, taken in June 2005, hangs alongside Washburn’s earlier photo of Nunatak in the Gateway exhibit—another sad testament to global warming. Ditto for Arnold’s 2005 shot of the Matterhorn.
All in all, Arnold made three trips to Alaska and two to the Alps to record in black-and-white the alarming decline of the world’s glaciers. His Doublexposure exhibit has been touring the United States since 2008.
“To see these photos, I’ve tried to become science-literate,” said Arnold, who—jokingly or not—claimed that the only science class he took in college was “Physics for Poets.”
Arnold showed the audience a chart indicating that Arctic Ocean ice is melting much more quickly than originally predicted. “The ice is going down, down, down,” he said. “The reality is outpacing the worst of the computer forecasts.”
Former U. S. Vice President Al Gore—in the widely known 2006 documentary film on global warming An Inconvenient Truth—actually “lowballed” what is happening with climate change, Arnold said. “What’s happening is happening much faster.”
Global warming as we are seeing it today, said Arnold, was set into motion basically with George Stephenson’s invention of the steam-locomotive engine in the early part of the 1800s. “It set off the first round of the Industrial Revolution,” he said, and marked the beginning of widespread reliance upon fossil fuels, such as coal, to power machinery and vehicles.
The resultant glut of CO2 from fossil-fuel-burning emissions, which are accumulating over time, “can’t escape the [atmospheric] ‘quilt’ around the earth.
“Twenty percent of the carbon burned tonight when you are driving home stays in the atmosphere,” Arnold told us. (I felt good knowing that I had walked to the lecture, as did the two people accompanying me.)
Arnold showed images from the newest phase of his Doublexposure project—before and after shots of coral reefs around the world. As he pointed out, the tragedy of the decline of coral reefs due to global warming is perhaps even more disturbing than that of the glaciers: With corals, we are dealing with dead animals, not “just” ice. Coral reefs, it should be pointed out, are also home to a quarter of all marine fish species, according to YaleGlobal Online. Dying coral equals less fish habitat, which equals less fish overall.
“Forty percent of coral reefs are dead or on their way out, five times faster than marine [kelp] forests,” Arnold said. “The demise of coral reefs is like death by a thousand cuts—all human.”
Arnold’s photo taken earlier this year of the exact same Rhone brain coral that underwater photographer Armando Jenik photographed in 1989 off of the British Virgin Islands is nothing less than depressing. The vibrant-looking coral with its swirly brain-like ridges died and eroded since Jenik’s photo to a state in which it now looks like a featureless rock. The pillar corals that appear in Jenik’s picture are almost gone as well; only a handful of stumps remain.
Other of Arnold’s coral before-and-afters were just as disturbing. One before-picture had a school of fish swimming in a coral reef; the after shot showed no fish inhabiting the now-devastated area.
“What can we do?” asked Arnold. Basically, he concluded that each individual needs to make a conscious effort to become educated on the science behind climate change, and to make some lifestyle changes—change bad habits such as relying on cars for transportation and buying bottled water (industrial emissions from the production of plastic bottles are of serious concern when it comes to reducing CO2 entering the atmosphere).
“We can’t start pecking at each other about these habits,” advised Arnold, putting an image on the screen showing some of his own activities that contribute to global warming, such as flying in an airplane to get from the East Coast to the West. “All I have to do is look at myself and my habits.”