Keeping a visual record of changes within a landscape

A scientist ascends a mountain ash eucalyptus tree in Wallaby Creek, the Hume Plateau, near Melbourne, Australia. Using a Hasselblad XPan camera for its panorama format, Hatcher was positioned on a neighboring tree about 200 feet off the ground.

The volcanic activity this year in Iceland has me thinking about returning to that country to record the changes in the aftermath of the eruption. The field of repeat photography seems always to have fascinated photographers, as well as their audience. The main attraction for repeat photography, or “rephotography,” is the Where’s Waldo-esque fascination of looking for visual changes over time. Rephotography engages the photographic explorer and sleuth in us, since no place remains perfectly unchanged with time. In this respect, rephotography also is a simple and effective tool for scientists and other curious explorers chronicling changing landscapes. Some changes, like certain geological types, may not be apparent for many years, yet other places undergo extraordinary change in just a short time. A familiar example is Shanghai-style urban sprawl. Every state in the U.S. probably has one, if not more, of the urban-sprawl-expansion rephotography books.

Another example is a natural disaster like Iceland’s recent volcanic eruption. In the past few years, other types of landscape-changing events seem, with more frequency, to be visiting the places I typically photograph. The recurring culprit is the rising temperature worldwide, which is altering weather patterns and accelerating flora, fauna and weather changes in the mountains, forests and deserts globally. Rephotography has been at the front of the effort to record these changes and communicate the direct as well as indirect effects of climate change.

Often, adventure photographers find themselves in remote places where few photos have been taken. These photos by intrepid photographers sometimes become the foundation of a rephotography effort. I’ve spent many years exploring mountains, deserts, rivers, canyons and other remarkable land-forms, and I always try to look through my old photos when returning to former haunts. Most of these places are changing. An example is the infamous north face of the Eiger in Switzerland, a locale I first visited and photographed around 30 years ago. On my first visits, the Eiger north face had three distinct ice fields; now, the second ice field is the only prominent one that remains. The rest are nearly gone because of rising temperatures. Today, rockfall on the Eiger Nordwand has become such a problem that climbers often climb the face in winter when the freezing temperatures and ice solidify the loose rock on the wall. But you don’t always need to wait 30 or 100 years for photos to have relevancy for rephotography.

You can imagine my interest when I heard the news about the recent eruption of the volcano under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland. I had just been to this same place a few months ago, spending about a week exploring the mountains on the fringes of the icecap. That region on Iceland’s southern coast turned out to be the most productive photography work I did during my monthlong visit in Iceland. Little did I know when I shot those images that a volcano would erupt just a few months later. That’s how quickly a rephotography project can be born. When I return to Iceland, I hope to reshoot in these same areas to see for myself the changes brought about by the eruption and floods.

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The interest in global warming has been the biggest factor to popularize the genre of rephotography. Glacier documentation is at the center of the use of rephotography to show the effects of climate change. The USGS is involved in several rephotography projects focusing on diminishing and retreating glaciers in North America. Their best-known project started in 1997 looking at retreating glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana. The repeat-photography project photographed 60 glaciers in the park. The study showed that only 26 named glaciers still exist of the 150 glaciers present in 1850. USGS scientists have estimated that at the current rate of retreat, by 2030, there will be no glaciers left in the park. The USGS website states, “While less quantitative than other high-tech methods of recording glacial mass, depth, and rate of retreat, repeat photography has become a valuable tool for communicating effects of global warming.”

Perhaps the most ambitious and creative repeat-photography project currently underway is James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). The 27 EIS cameras presently are positioned above glaciers in 15 locations around the world, including Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Bolivia. The cameras are fixed in protective housings and situated to give them a broad view of the glacier terminus. The cameras are programmed to make a photo many times a day, season after season. The results are combined to produce a video clip that shows seasonal growth and retreat of the glaciers. Balog hopes to keep cameras in position for several years in order to show the retreat of the glaciers beyond the seasonal fluctuations, which is a result of global weather changes. Already his EIS project has produced remarkable images of glacier retreat.

In the coming weeks, I’m traveling to another repeat-photography assignment: returning to southeast Australia and the Hume Plateau. In 2002, I photographed a team of scientists, including Roman Dial and Stephen Sillett, as they explored and recorded data within the top canopy of 300-foot-high mountain ash trees, a type of eucalyptus. The team climbed these eucalyptus trees with ropes and a form of travel from one tree to another called “canopy trekking.” The scientific component of this adventure was to establish that the trees in Wallaby Creek were the tallest stand of hardwood, flowering trees in the world. The tallest of these trees, called Big Ash One, was 91.6 meters tall (over 300 feet) and estimated to be close to 400 years old. The discovery and measurement of Big Ash One also confirmed, for the first time, a living tree over 300 feet tall on mainland Australia.

The photograph here was taken during a survey of this spectacular stand of trees. I shot this photo of the Wallaby Creek forest as scientists ascended a study tree. I shot from a fixed rope in Big Ash One from a position about 200 feet above the forest floor. For this vertical panoramic, I used a Hasselblad XPan film camera with a 40mm lens and Fuji 100 film. In February 2009, this forest was destroyed in the worst bush fire in Australia’s history, Black Saturday. It’s now a forest of standing dead with only an estimated 60 trees having survived the fire.

My plan is to return to this area and, with original GPS coordinates, use ropes to rephotograph what remains of the giant trees. I’ll attempt to photograph in the same locations I did when Wallaby Creek was discovered to be home to some of the tallest trees in the world. How exciting it will be to return, see the changes and to document them. Fire is an integral part of the regeneration of eucalyptus forests. Recent reports from the field have informed me that the forest is regenerating, and the new growth of mountain ash trees in Wallaby Creek is about six to 10 feet tall. Park rangers estimate that in the next five years, the trees may be over 60 feet. I look forward to shooting that for another rephotography project.

Bill Hatcher is a regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside. Visit

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.

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