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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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Sunset at Lake Tahoe in winter. Since the 1960s, the lake has been losing clarity at a rate of a foot per year due to algae growth.

“The challenge for me was to not make the book too scientific, but still interesting and relevant,” says Carmel. “It was also challenging to figure out how to not make it depressing. Hopefully, the images will inspire people. In our daily lives, we’re not faced with this kind of information. I know a lot of people who love the outdoors, love the Sierras, but are not aware of the challenges we face.”

This is because much of the impact here goes unseen, but the statistics are startling. According to the Sierra Nevada Alliance, an organization of more than 80 groups working to protect and restore the mountains, the most pressing matter involves water. These mountains supply 55% of California’s developed water and most of the water for northwestern Nevada through a system that relies heavily on the Sierra snowpack. Over the last 100 years, there has been a 25% decrease in runoff from April to July in the central region and a 10% reduction in the south. As temperatures rise, scientists predict a 25% to 40% decline between 2025 and 2050, with losses of 75% to 90% possible by the century’s end.

But just try capturing that on camera. Carmel started working on the current book in 2006, the year that her first book, Brilliant Waters: Portraits of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and the High Sierra (Hawks Peak Publishing), came out. Through personal connections, the photos for that book were seen by Robert Redford, and Carmel’s work made such an impression that he wrote the foreword. Brilliant Waters is in its third printing, having sold more than 6,000 copies.

Orange poppies at the South Fork of the American River in spring.

As she started thinking about the theme of her next project, a report by the Sierra Nevada Alliance was released describing the threats the region was facing, and that spurred her on. Since she’s intimately familiar with the area, Carmel knew the exact spots she wanted to go to and what she wanted to photograph. Most of the work was done in day trips, which are much easier for her to manage than going out for extended periods. But longer trips were taken to higher elevations like Arc Pass in Sequoia National Park and the Palisade Glaciers, which are receding. Both trips required using mules to carry nearly 60 pounds of gear, which included a Hasselblad H3D, Nikon D3X, Nikon D3, a range of lenses, a laptop and solar panels, to elevations of up to 13,000 feet.

“What’s difficult about landscape photography is finding rare light on rare landscapes,” Carmel explains. “The work is very seasonal. You have to capture what the season presents. Hopefully, you get the most dramatic part of what it presents and can capture it in the most dramatic light. That can take a year of planning. This project required a certain familiarity with the landscape and searching out those places that are extraordinary.”

Climate change also isn’t an easy topic to tackle in pictures. While there’s basic agreement that the planet is getting warmer and carbon emissions related to human activity have caused greater impact, it’s difficult to measure how much of the subtler physical changes to the environment can be attributed to global warming directly. Around her hometown of Truckee, Calif., Carmel has noticed less snow, especially on the peaks near her house. The snow doesn’t last into the spring and summer as it once did. Fields of lupine flowers are stunted one year and dried out the next. But there’s room for debate on how much any of those incidents are directly related to climate change.


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