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Sierra Light

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

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.

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.

Giant sequoia, Yosemite National Park. A recent report found fewer large-diameter trees are growing in Yosemite than in years past because of climate change.

Other trends aren’t so debatable, like a recently released report by the U.S. Geological Survey that found fewer large-diameter trees are growing in Yosemite than in years past. Scientists say this is most likely because of the warmer climate and smaller snowpacks that are symptomatic of climate change. Throughout the Sierra, tree mortality rates are increasing. Scientists often attribute this to higher temperatures that increase moisture stress, which weakens trees.

Those are the kinds of statistics that paint a fairly grim picture of the Sierra’s future, which makes for a rather depressing tale. But open up Carmel’s book, and the pages are filled with vibrant colorful scenes of giant sequoia in Yosemite, meadows in the foothills filled with bright orange poppies, gentle flowing streams and the soft pink light of sunrise over Lake Tahoe. The beautiful landscapes paired with insightful narratives strike just the kind of balance that she was looking to achieve.

Most of the images were taken with the medium-format, 39-megapixel Hasselblad H3D, allowing her to capture the detail and color she requires for making prints that range from 16×20 inches to 6×10 feet. All the images in her books are available as limited-edition fine prints. Aside from her books, Carmel’s work has appeared in publications, including OP, People, Sierra and Sunset, many galleries and private collections throughout the U.S., and an exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art. In recognition of her fine-art photography and technical expertise, she was one of 12 photographers worldwide honored with the Hasselblad Master Photographer award in 2006.

The photographer says she plans to continue using her images in ways that benefit the environment. Carmel does a lot of work with the Truckee Donner Land Trust by donating photos they need of areas they’re trying to protect. During a book-launch party for Brilliant Waters, she donated half of all book sales to the group, raising $6,000 in two hours. She also works with The Trust for Public Land in San Francisco and provided images for a major fundraising effort to protect the Martis Valley area of Truckee.

“I see this as a lifetime issue that I’ll be aware of and try to address throughout my work,” Carmel says. “Each of us in our own little corner of the world has to work on issues that we feel are important.”

The Changing Range of Light: Portraits of the Sierra Nevada is available to order from bookstores and Signed copies can be ordered through Elizabeth Carmel’s gallery website at See more of her work at