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Life On The Ice

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

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.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

A minke whale feeds in an ice-choked bay along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Martin calls the near-total loss of ice in Glacier National Park an “ironic and emblematic tragedy” because when it was declared a park, the Grinnell Glacier cascaded down a cliff for hundreds of feet and filled the basin. Now, it covers a small corner, and what used to be ice is a lake today. Visually, images showing what any given glacier looked like a century ago compared to now are striking. But more telling is how quickly these landscapes are changing, sometimes over the course of just a few months.

Martin’s love affair with ice started long before he learned how to climb. In the book, he recalls how in high school he pored over USGS aerial photographs of Alaskan glaciers and devoured glaciology books from which he learned to read glacial fingerprints. Inspired by the black-and-white photographs taken by USGS photographer Austin Post for the 1971 book, Glacier Ice, Martin imagined a color version of that influential work taken from a more abstract perspective.

“I wanted to illustrate both the beauty and the degradation of the wild icy places in the world, but I also strove to do so with a single artistic vision,” he explains. “Whenever possible, I captured natural abstracts, looked for a sense of motion or a complex balance, an effective combination of hues. I hoped the images would stir people whether they encountered them in the book, on my site, the iPhone app, or in magazines and other media.”

In many of Martin’s favorite places, like Antarctica, South Georgia, Alaska and the Andes, ice is a major influence or the central feature. “It exists in manifold forms—surging glacier surfaces, water-sculpted icebergs, as towers and slits in living ice, as featureless plains on the great ice sheets, as an adornment for mountains and spires,” he describes. “The variety of forms and gradations of color seems infinite. I try to use these elements to construct my compositions.”

Wind, subzero temperatures, dangerously high elevations and just getting to some of the places are a few of the challenges Martin faced while doing his fieldwork. After arriving in Ecuador to shoot Mount Cayambe, an 18,996-foot-tall volcano that’s the highest and coldest place on the Equator, Martin never saw the summit because the clouds were so thick. Getting to Mount Everest and the Mountains of the Moon, which are on the border of the Congo and Uganda, involved driving, hiring porters and walking for days just to stand at the base camp of Everest and the summit of the Mountains of the Moon.

“It’s always a grunt to just get there,” he says, “and a matter of luck whether you come back with the images or not.”

James Martin’s Favorite Places To Shoot

1 Ilulissat is the iceberg capital of the Northern Hemisphere. Plan to travel to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, from Copenhagen or Reykjavík, and continue on an Air Greenland prop plane to Ilulissat, a relatively large village on the west coast of the world’s largest island. It’s a short walk from the campground to a view of the Ice Fjord where immense icebergs catch on an underwater moraine, piling into one another. The view extends into the ocean, a magic landscape dotted with bergs.

2 Martin says the Banff/Jasper Highway from Lake Louise to Jasper townsite in the Canadian Rockies is the most scenic stretch of paved road in the world. The view changes constantly as you wind up one valley and down the next. Glaciers and icefalls grace the mountains to the west. Although diminished in size over the last decades, the glaciers still are impressive, and at the Columbia Icefields, very accessible. Take care at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Thin ice on the surface can hide a very big hole, and the slopes are slippery.

3 The Jökulsárlón, or ice lagoon, in southeastern Iceland represents a unique opportunity to shoot icebergs and glaciers from land in good light. Glaciers from the island’s largest ice cap calve bergs into the lake, which then drains into the sea. Wind sometimes blows blocks of ice to shore where they sit like stranded vessels. The Jökulsárlón suffers from an overabundance of tourists sometimes, but ever-changing light and compositions more than compensate.

4 The Ruth Gorge near Denali in Alaska is one of the deepest in the world, stacked Yosemites still under construction. The ice is up to 3,800 feet thick and would overflow Yosemite. If all the ice melted, some of the walls would be 9,000 feet high. Take a flight from Talkeetna to see the gorge and some of the grandest mountains in North America: Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Huntington. They’re dripping with ice and represent serious climbing challenges.

5 Most of the world’s ice is found in Antarctica so it’s no surprise that a voyage to the peninsula, a rugged extension of the Andes, tops the list of the best places to shoot ice, Martin says. The scale stuns the mind. If you cruise to the tip from the east, the ship passes tabular icebergs, flat-topped remnants of the disintegrating ice shelves, and every peak and plain glisten with ice. Add the amazing wildlife—whales, penguins, blue-eyed shags, and leopard and crab-eater seals—and you have the greatest remaining wilderness on display, as well as evidence of climate change occurring on a human time scale.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Large glaciers flowing from the Vatnajökull ice cap in Iceland calve into the Jökulsárlón, or glacier lagoon, filling it with big icebergs that float around before melting. The Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe, and the Jökulsárlón is the best known and the largest of a number of glacial lakes in Iceland. This area is widely regarded as the most picturesque in southern Iceland.

Climate change can be a tough topic to tackle photographically because its impact is sometimes lost in translation. An image of what the Ilulissat Glacier looked like in 1910, or even in 2000, compared to now is striking, but what that difference means to the general public isn’t so clear, and that’s partly because views about global warming are often at odds. While there’s basic scientific agreement that the earth’s climate has grown warmer mainly because of greenhouse gas emissions, there’s robust debate over what degree is attributable to human activity. Recent fluctuations in temperature only have intensified the dispute. Before the December United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, there were a few polls indicating a decline in the number of Americans who believe there’s solid evidence that temperatures are rising and that it’s a serious problem.

Glaciers are considered among the most sensitive indicators of climate change, advancing when the climate cools and retreating when it warms. The amount of land-based snow and ice figures into the earth’s climate in many ways, including determining sea levels, regulating global temperatures and establishing human drinking water supplies. Many glaciers are now discussed with projected expiration dates on the ice that remains, but answers about what happens afterward aren’t as straightforward.

Celebrating both beauty and science, Martin is ultimately hoping that Planet Ice helps to increase public awareness and push the debate toward acting responsibly. He’d like to write a children’s version of the book and create a website where kids can ask questions, download pictures and read about the world’s wild places. Ideally, the website could become a resource for science teachers. There are also plans for a traveling exhibit.

“I always intended to disburse the images as widely as I could because a book alone is a lonely thing these days,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t going to change the world, but I hoped to nudge it in the right direction.”

Martin’s Gear

Some of Martin’s earlier medium-format film work is sprinkled throughout the book, but he mostly shot using Canon EOS-1Ds or 1Ds Mark II cameras between January 2006 and August 2008. His lenses ranged from a 15mm fisheye to a 500mm telephoto with a 1.4 extender. Lately, he’s grown fond of the quality he gets from digital medium-format cameras, working mostly with the Phase One P45+ system.

James Martin is the author of Digital Photography Outdoors (Mountaineers Books) and the upcoming Digital Medium Format Photography. You can find more of his photography and writing at and