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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sierra Light

In her latest book, Elizabeth Carmel explores how climate change is affecting the landscape that she calls home

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The Truckee River in autumn. The warming climate is raising the water temperature of rivers in the Sierra Nevada.

In describing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, famed naturalist John Muir once wrote: “Along the [Central Valley’s] eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height, reposing like a smooth, cumulous cloud in the sunny sky, and so gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”

Lupine wildflowers near the Mokelumne River.

The Sierra is home to so many geographic wonders—Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon, Lake Tahoe, Mount Whitney—it’s hard to believe that one place could be so naturally rich. For 400 miles, a magnificent skyline filled with spectacular landscapes stretches out along the eastern edge of California from the Mojave Desert to the Cascade Range in the northern part of the state and Oregon.

But like many natural treasures around the world, the Sierra is facing the effects of climate change, with future consequences that range somewhere between serious and catastrophic. Landscape photographer Elizabeth Carmel has lived in this region for many years, and she focuses on the challenges it faces in her latest book, The Changing Range of Light: Portraits of the Sierra Nevada (Hawks Peak Publishing, 2009).

Sunrise on Mount Whitney Massif from Arc Pass, Sequoia National Park.

Muir coined the phrase “range of light” in his writings about the mountains during the late 1800s when the Sierra Nevada was unseen by most people. Thanks to him and early landscape-photography pioneers like Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams and others whose work literally showed the public what the West looked like, great progress was made in protecting wild places and their natural resources.

But no longer is the challenge just about threats posed by urban development. The warming climate is causing such widespread physical and biological change that work by present-day nature photographers could one day be viewed as a record of what once was and is no more. Think melting icebergs in the Arctic and polar bears floating on chunks of broken ice that used to be solid sheets.

In the Sierra, changes in the way the landscape looks are subtle. So instead of approaching the topic from a “then vs. now” perspective, Carmel fills each page of the book with the unique and captivating landscape photography on which she has built her career. Paired with each image is short scientific commentary that explains how climate change is affecting or could affect that particular area. Poetry also is woven in among the technical accounts.


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