Recreated Photo Shows 100 Years of Glacier Retreat: 'I Was Shaking'

A photographer has recreated a picture of a glacier from 1918 in order to highlight how much of it has disappeared in the last century.

In a viral Reddit post, photographer Neill Drake shared a photograph he took that showed just how much the Blomstrandbreen Glacier, which is located in a bay in Svalbard, an island far north of Norway, has retreated. This same glacier picture, originally taken by members of the Norwegian Polar Institute, has been previously recreated, most recently over 14 years ago in 2008 by photographer Christian Åslund.

The original 1918 picture which was taken by members of the Norwegian Polar Institute (inset) compared to the modern-day view. Norwegian Polar Institute/Neill Drake

The picture was engineered to match the original in as many ways as possible, said Drake. The picture was taken at the same time of year as the original shot in 1918, which was during the Arctic summertime.

"In the original photo, you can tell it's summer because it's daylight, and in the winter it's complete darkness in the Arctic," Drake told Newsweek. "Second, the fjords are frozen throughout most of the year. You can only access them by boat in summer when the sea ice melts. Third, the mountain tops in the original photo don't have snow on them, which would only be the case in the peak of the warmest summer months."

The expedition brought along the other comparison photos to help them to line up the shot.

They took various photos from different distances and angles and used Photoshop to create low opacity overlays, figuring out the best match.

"There was a very distinct feature in all the photos that helped us line it up the best," Drake said. "There's a wishbone shape of snow on the right mountain peak which I had noticed in the photos before we launched our small boat. That was my visual cue to know we were close to being in the same position. Due to the features of the peaks, parts of the wishbone would be hidden or wouldn't appear the same. Then it just became a matter of getting both boats in the right position to most closely resemble the originals."

glacier comp
The expedition trying to line up their newest shot with the original, and one from 2002. Neill Drake

Drake has worked as a guide in Antarctica since 2016 and has witnessed firsthand glaciers around the world that are rapidly receding due to a warming climate.

"An example would be the Martial Glacier in Ushuaia [Argentina]. When I first visited the glacier in 2016, it was impressive," he says. "Now, it's almost completely gone."

However, Drake says that the comparison between these two photos of the Blomstrand Glacier is one of the most dramatic he's ever seen.

"When I was asked by the expedition leader if I would do the honors of taking the photo, I was shaking. I knew that the message that this photo represented meant a whole lot more than just how accurate the boat position and mountain peaks were," he said. "I knew I was part of something more important than just capturing a photo. It was part of ensuring people are having these important conversations about how we are impacting the climate."

Increasing temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions are causing sea ice and glaciers all over the world to retreat at an unprecedented rate. Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate of almost 13 percent every ten years, and the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by 95 percent over the last 30 years. The World Wildlife Fund predicted that "if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040."

The loss of sea ice carries real consequences that will be seen across the globe. Sea levels will rise, flooding coastal communities, and habitats of thousands of species like polar bears, reindeers and walruses will be lost, leading to extinctions. Humans may also be severely impacted by food shortages, as heat waves and increasingly unpredictable weather caused by ice loss will cause damage to crucial food crops.

"The photo was meant to make people uncomfortable," Drake said. "You could read some of the Reddit comments and people were saying things like 'Ok, this photo ruined my day' or 'Well, we're f**ked'. That's the point. That is why I posted it. To make people think 'Ok, maybe this climate change thing is real'."