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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life On The Ice

James Martin travels to the ends of the earth to photograph a vanishing resource

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The Falkland Islands, a British territory also claimed by Argentina. Gentoo penguins are easy to recognize because of the wide white stripe that extends like a bonnet across the top of their heads.

Icebergs in Lake Grey below the Cuernos del Paine, Chile.
When James Martin was in his mid-20s, he began learning how to ice climb in the Columbia Icefield near Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. He and a friend, with mediocre gear and skill, climbed the 1,700-foot North Face of the glacier and lived to tell about it. When he returned to the same spot 30 years later, instead of finding ice, Martin saw gravel with ice hundreds of feet up the hill. Where there had been famous ice pitches, now there was nothing.

“At that point,” he says, “climate change became personal.”

Acting with a sense of loss and newfound urgency, Martin set out on a nearly three-year journey to see for himself how quickly glaciers around the globe are melting and to document it in photographs. From Central Africa’s Mountains of the Moon, the Alps and the Andes, to the Himalayas, Greenland, Iceland and the polar ice caps, the Seattle-based photographer compiled a thorough and stirring catalog of the earth’s ice.

The work, along with essays from noted scientists, writers and explorers, is the focus of his new book, Planet Ice: A Climate for Change (Braided River). Part science book, part cautionary tale and part love story, Martin’s portrayal mixes dramatic, sweeping landscapes with close-up shots capturing glacial surface details like olgives (surge ridges), sinuous moraines, surficial lakes, deep blue crevasses and nieves penitents, which are tall, thin blades of ice closely spaced together toward the direction of the sun.

The Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina’s Andes is fed from the Southern Patagonian Icefield. The ice sometimes blocks a channel between two lakes until sufficient pressure builds and the ice dam breaks.
“I love wild places, areas devoid of much or any human impacts,” he says. “I love high winds and high seas, inaccessible viewpoints and the steepest terrain. The challenge of climbing and wilderness travel engaged me fully. I spent decades more interested in exploring remote corners of the map than in photography.”

What Martin found at Athabasca Glacier is a story that’s often told now about many of the world’s icy peaks. There are few places where the effects of climate change are more dramatic than the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. The ice there has retreated by more than 15 kilometers, or 9.3 miles, in the last decade alone. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a long-running study of three “benchmark” glaciers in Alaska and Washington that showed a sharp rise in the melt rate over the last 10 to 15 years. These glaciers—Wolverine and Gulkana in Alaska and South Cascade in Washington—are also viewed as representative of thousands of other glaciers in North America. The study showed that all three started melting at the same higher rate even though they’re in different climates, some 1,500 miles apart.


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