Photographing the World's Vanishing Glaciers

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New Zealand’s Fox Glacier has declined significantly in size over the past few decades. Klaus Thymann

The glaciers of the world are beautiful and impressive, sculpting valleys and lakes and making up, along with ice caps and snow, more than two-thirds of the Earth's freshwater. But they are also in retreat. Almost every year since 1980, glaciers have melted by a significant margin due to rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Danish-born photographer Klaus Thymann has photographed many things, from landscapes to fashion shoots to the clearest lake in the world. But as he became aware of the effects of climate change, he was inspired to capture shots of glaciers before they were gone—and to spread awareness about their plight.

In 2008, he founded a nonprofit called Project Pressure to facilitate the photographing of glaciers from all around the world. Early on he realized that he wanted it to be a collaborative effort to which anybody could contribute, he says. Photographs taken as part of the project are labeled with GIS coordinates, so people can see exactly where the glaciers are and how they looked at any given point in time.

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New Zealand’s Fox Glacier, which has declined significantly in size over the past few decades, is one of the only glaciers in the world to run through a temperate rain forest. Klaus Thymann

Part of the motivation was to show people the beauty of the world's glaciers. "Photography allows people to experience something that they otherwise wouldn't see," he says. But he also wants to help people understand climate change, and perhaps inspire them to change the way they live.

"If art can explain science, that can be good for people who find science difficult," he says. "Art can also be an inspiration to encourage behavioral change."

It's also more effective, in his eyes, than all of the "bad news" stories we hear about the topic. "People need a positive narrative to engage with, on the difficult and complex issue of climate change," he says.

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A ghostly shot of a branch toward the bottom of a cenote, or water-filled sinkhole, in Mexico. Klaus Thymann

Thymann just finished traveling around the world in less than a month, on a campaign funded by the watch company Casio G-Shock. The funding allowed Thymann to take photos of glaciers on the South Island of New Zealand. These unique rivers of ice are the only ones in the world that are found within a temperate rain forest. During the trip he also got to take photos of the world's largest lava lake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as an otherworldly water-filled sinkhole in Mexico.

A variety of Thymann's photographs will be displayed at a lower Manhattan gallery called The Supermarket, starting today (March 26) and lasting until April 9

Project Pressure has helped commission and catalog shots of glaciers from around the world. For example, in the fall of 2014, Thymann's collaborator Peter Funch took shots of glaciers on Mount Baker, in Washington state. And in October, photographer Simon Norfolk trekked to East Africa's Mount Kenya to take in the area's vanishing glaciers.

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A glacier on Mount Baker in Washington. Peter Funch / Project Pressure

Norfolk came up with a unique way to document that mountain's ice retreat. Hauling a flaming torch, he trudged through the mountainside along the lines where the rivers of ice once lay, using historical maps showing the glacier's contour at given times in the past. He put his camera on a very long exposure, so that in the photograph the outlines of the now-gone glaciers are lit up in trails of fire. His body doesn't appear because it was not light enough to make an impression in the photograph at such a slow shutter speed, he says.

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The fire shows where the edge of the glacier lay on Mount Kenya in 1934. Simon Norfolk / Project Pressure

"One of the real problems of climate change is its ability to be visualized," Norfolk says. "If you can't photograph it, you can't think about, and if you can't think about it, you don't get angry and change your behavior."

He though his method would have appeal for its "fire versus ice" theme. There is also a certain "irony and bitterness of creating the lines using petroleum," he says. (He lit the torch with gasoline.) The project on Mount Kenya was one of the most difficult and important things he's done, he adds.

Since he began to participate in Project Pressure, Norfolk has also made an effort to cut down on his own fossil fuel use, like flying much less. "It's altered a great deal of my behavior, and I'd like to think it'll do the same for others," he says.

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The path of flame shows where a finger of glacier extended on Mount Kenya in 1963. Simon Norfolk / Project Pressure
Photographing the World's Vanishing Glaciers | Tech & Science