Timelapse Photos of Melting Glaciers Display Climate Change Effects

Melting glaciers – whether in Antarctica or Greenland – are the first to spring to mind when talking about global warming. Keeping tabs on the acceleration of climate change is one way for scientists to know what we should expect in the future. At the same time, monitoring the retreat of melting glaciers may well be one of the easiest ways to prove global warming is not a conspiracy but a very real thing.

Now, the Extreme Ice Survey is trying to bring the point home by creating timelapse photos to better illustrate the effects of climate change. Geological Society of America published a paper last week that presents powerful before-and-after images of glaciers all around the world. Shot over the last decade, the photographs are mainly the work of James Balog, a photographer who initiated the Extreme Ice Survey in partnership with National Geographic.

Balog, an internationally acclaimed nature photojournalist, started documenting melting glaciers around the world in 2007. His perspective is so dramatic and mind-blowing that several projects featured his work, including the 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice.”

Watch the timelapse video below to see for yourself the drastic effects of global warming. Balog and his has Extreme Ice Survey team have shot more than 1 million photographs. They put together some of the images to create this visual documentary of the changes taking place at Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska. According to their data, the glacier has retreated by 550 meters (over 1,800 feet) between 2007 and 2015.

Making Climate Change Visible

The paper’s authors, who include Balog and other climate and glacier experts, have a strong reason for creating this timelapse video. Their ultimate goal was to inform broad audiences from the general public about climate change in way we could understand it. Not with statistics, satellite images, or other scientific tools, but with on-the-ground expeditions.

“Science is grounded in observation, so science education will benefit from displaying the recently exposed landscapes,” Balog said in an interview with The Washington Post.

The award-winning photographer also suggested that capturing images on ground level provides the viewer with a closeness unlike no other. Given that we tend to respond better to visual stimuli, the timelapse videos help deliver a new kind of understanding reality. Seeing the melting glaciers is much more powerful than just looking at maps, charts, and numbers.

When it comes to realizing the urgency of climate change, ‘a photograph is worth a thousand words.’ Visual images have the unique ability to influence people and stir them towards action. Just take a look at these before-and-after photos of Switzerland’s Stein Glacier. Between 2006 and 2015, the melting has caused the glacier to retreat by 550 meters.

Stein Glacier, Swiss Alps, September 2011 / Source


Stein Glacier, August 2015 / Source

Balog also revealed Sólheimajökull Glacier in Iceland is the location that had the biggest impact on him. He described this melting glacier as his “first love,” the one that convinced him he had to share this perspective on global warming with the entire world. Balog partnered with local scientists in Iceland to see how quickly the glacier had changed in a surprisingly short period of time. According to reports, this particular glacier has decreased by over 2,000 feet since 2007.

Melting Glaciers around the World

We’re used to the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets to receive the most spotlight in the press, and that’s justifiable. They contain immense amounts of ice and their melting can raise the sea water levels to dangerous heights. However, Balog’s photos also include lesser known mountain glaciers from other parts of the globes, such as Europe or Alaska. In many cases, these smaller glaciers are even more affected by their changing environments that their polar siblings. Therefore, their response to rising temperatures is even more visible across a short period.

It’s clear the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets could have the most significant long-term potential to influence global sea levels. However, Balog points out melting mountain glaciers will have repercussions as well. For instance, the Trift Glacier in Switzerland has shrunk almost three quarters of a mile from 2006 to 2015.

Unlike the deserted locations of polar ice, these smaller glaciers are surrounded by communities. The runoff from these glaciers used to provide reliable sources of fresh water, but not anymore. As the glaciers melt away, water becomes less accessible. Some experts have also argued that further melting could cause devastating floods. It would be easy for so much water to simply destroy nearby infrastructure and residential areas.

 “People who live in proximity to these things are really are quite acutely aware of how much things are changing and think about it, and the researchers in their areas study it,” Balog explained. “These are important and immediate impacts.”

Then and Now: Climate Change Effects

While Balog’s photos are valuable, satellite measurements are still the most reliable sources of precise information on global glacial retreat. The vulnerability of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets is quite visible from outer space. Thanks to satellite data, scientists can estimate the total amount of ice contained in these sheets. For example, if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melted away completely, they would increase sea levels by over 200 feet. But it won’t happen for tens of thousands of years, even at the current warming pace.

However, on-the-ground imagery has the upper hand when it comes to compelling visual evidence. We know climate change is already occurring, but we rarely get to see its effects in such blatant before-and-after scenarios. Given the location of these melting glaciers – among human communities – the photos have an added incisive effect. In other words, it’s not just remote ice on Antarctica that’s disappearing. Glaciers in Europe and Asia, and the Americas are also slowly retreating. And what will we do once they’ve melted?

Columbia Glacier calves icebergs, Columbia Bay west of Valdez, AK. / Source

The paper’s authors argue that recently deglaciated scenery has little chances of being re-occupied by ice in the foreseeable future. Forests or other vegetation may colonize such landscapes in other places, but not at the poles. And when massive ice sheets will have melted into our seas, we will look back at this moment and realize it was the point of no return.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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