Explaining the impacts of climate change is never easy, and facts and figures do little to hammer home how the melting of ice is changing our planet.
But photos certainly can. Place an old image of a glacier next to a recent one and the rapid and dramatic change is abundantly clear.
That's what photographer James Balog has been doing for more than a decade as he documents the disappearance of glaciers over time. His images, taken as part of the Extreme Ice Survey program, bring not only the visual element to climate science, but also an emotional element — and that gets people to listen. It's the one-two punch that climate scientists need to grab the attention of the general public and officials alike to spark education and action on this critical issue.
In a recent article titled Savor the Cryosphere, the Geological Society of America (GSA), which works with Balog and Extreme Ice Survey, highlights how storytelling through visuals is an effective tool to explain the science of glacial retreat.
The authors note, "Repeat photography vividly displays the rapid retreat of glaciers that is characteristic across the planet. This loss of ice has implications to rising sea level, greater susceptibility to dryness in places where people rely upon rivers delivering melt water resources, and to the destruction of natural environmental archives that were held within the ice."
The image above is the Stein Glacier in Alaska. Comparing that photo to the one below makes it easy to grasp the scale of glacial retreat worldwide.
The Stein Glacier photographed again on Aug. 20, 2015. (Photo: James Balog/GSA Today/The Geological Society of America)
In a recent interview with Washington Post, Balog notes: “I do think that our most dominant sensory apparatus is our vision. So when you can deliver an understanding of the reality of what’s going on through vision, rather than numbers or maps, that also has the unique ability to touch and influence people.”
Balog focuses on glaciers around the world, not just in polar regions, because their disappearance anywhere affects local communities. While the polar ice sheets will raise sea levels over time, when the rapidly disappearing glaciers found across the continents disappear, so too does a significant freshwater supply for those regions.
That's also why the GSA uses the images to reach a broader audience; getting scientists and non-scientists alike to care about climate change is a critical goal — and an uphill task. The authors of Savor the Cryosphere explain, "The cornerstone of our approach is the use of repeat photography so that the scale and rate of retreat are vividly depicted. Science is grounded in observation, so science education will benefit from displaying the recently exposed landscapes."
Below are more then-and-now images that illustrate the glaciers' retreat over the course of a few years. Next time you're in a debate about the speedy and dramatic effects of climate change and melting ice, pull up these images to clinch the deal.
This specific retreat can be seen even more powerfully in the time lapse video below:
Qori Kalis Glacier