The Next Glacier Season

Dufourspitze, Switzerland (15,203′) in April. While there are glaciers in there, most of the white stuff is seasonal snow.

Not exactly the same view, though a similar area. Matterhorn, Switzerland in early September with no seasonal snow. This differential is the primary reason for choosing summer to view glaciers.

As the next glacier season approaches in a few months, my mind has been focusing on the many mountain ranges that I would like to be visiting. There is a lifetime of glaciers to chase and photograph from northern Alaska to the tip of Argentina, among many other places. It does present a tad of anxiety that they are melting as we speak; yet one can only be in a single place at one time.

At the moment, the sole aircraft available for glacier photography is located in the Alps. Through 2020, the Bernese Alps, Pennine and Lepontine Alps of Italy and Switzerland, and Massif du Mont Blanc have been photographed. That leaves the glaciers south of the Massif du Mont Blanc and east of roughly Andermatt, Switzerland. That is a lot of surface area, though the biggest glaciers of the Alps have been documented already.

I was somewhat remiss to be “stuck” in Central Europe due to COVID. While I am looking over the horizon to get established in Canada and also to explore the icy regions of Scandinavia, travel is much too difficult.

A recent article in The Guardian reminded me that the Alps are an ideal location to be at the moment. I have at least 50% of them to photograph, and they are melting at double the global average. To quote Romain Hugonnet of the University of Toulouse: “The glaciers in the Alps are not thick and are [some of the] fastest melting in the world. That will continue until there is nothing left. How fast depends on different climate scenarios, but at current speed, 80-90% will be gone by 2050. That means we will lose almost everything, except the biggest glaciers.”

So, preparations are in order to launch a photographic attack of the Alps this summer. While I would like to get absolutely every last remaining glacier, weather, maintenance, and COVID-19 restrictions will dictate if I can get it done. At the very least, I would like to complete everything in Switzerland, and all glaciers south of the Massif du Mont Blanc. Time will tell.

Formalizing the Initiative

Gannett Glacier, Wyoming, 2015

As the idea behind the Global Glacier Initiative advances, it has become time to formalize the mission into an organization. The Global Glacier Initiative, Inc. has been formed as a public benefit corporation in the US State of Wyoming. As of this writing, the exemption application for 501(c)(3) non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service is underway, itself a very detailed task. While charitable objectives are indeed noble, the amount of paperwork necessary to codify the mission and safeguard tax-protected funds for donors is significant.

It is part conceptual and part pragmatic that the organization is being formed and operated as a nonprofit. From a pragmatic standpoint, previous posts have alluded to the limitations of operating on a for profit author model on many levels. From a conceptual level, I make clear that glaciers largely exist on public land and belong to humanity. It would only make sense that an initiative such as this would be operated on a selfless and public basis.

There are many practical considerations behind the choice of the State of Wyoming as a locale for registration. From a mission standpoint, it is the place where the very first glacier was seen by the founder from the air, and it was the launching pad for the first glacier conquest: capturing the glaciers of the US Rockies before a move to Europe. That task was done based out of Alpine Airpark in the western part of the state, about one hour by air from the Wind River Range and 40 minutes to the glaciers of the Tetons.

The image for this blog post is of the Gannett Glacier in the Wind River Range, Wyoming, the largest glacier in the United States Rockies. It was taken in August of 2015 after an extremely dry winter and before an explosive fire season that would, within days, render flying impossible for three solid weeks. That is one of the many struggles of North American glacier aerial photography, that prime glacier pursuits occur precisely when the air is clogged with smoke.

Reflections on the Mission

Driestgletscher, showing that it is substantially melted already. The clock is ticking…..

While strategic plans, organization missions, and the like are partially on the site already and will invariably be added to as time goes by, there is something pure about stating the general idea behind the Global Glacier Initiative, in fairly direct prose, while things are very early. 

One of the biggest things going on in my mind is the idea of “getting them before they are gone.” That does not necessarily leave much room for thinking of anything else, as there isn’t anything else to think of. The clock is ticking, as I write this, as glaciers march to their demise. Some will disappear even this coming summer, while others will shrink significantly in the coming years and decades. There really is no time to waste.

I hate to be cynical: I think we as a human race will fail at achieving carbon zero in adequate time to halt the recession of glaciers. If that pessimistic presumption turns out to be true, then we will have wished that someone started a project like this years before. I suppose the worst-case scenario, from an organizational utility standpoint, is that the glaciers are documented and yet they are somehow saved, which means that some of the effort will have been in vain.

But will it have been?

If the Global Glacier Initiative’s efforts in any way contribute to the process by which the glaciers are saved, then nothing was wasted. If they happen to halt their decline, then a global treasure is being shared with the human race, one that, in those hypothetical circumstances, would continue to be available to all. The reality would still remain that glaciers are either located very high up or very close to the poles, which means that they are almost never easy to get to. The bulk of humanity will either see a glacier in person once or not at all, so this mission is important no matter what happens.

My view is that the images collected now will have some use in the immediate term. Once the glaciers are gone, even if that is at a time after I am no longer alive, then the images taken will have increased in significance greatly. I have a view that far into the future. I am thinking of generations that have not yet been born when I contemplate taking these photographs.

That is part of the reason for a nonprofit model. An author model is a profit model, which means that the author is beholden to the marketplace. Markets are notoriously concerned with the present, which means that when one factors long-term elements for the good of humanity as a whole, markets lag until well past the point where it is too late. It is simply impossible to think of future generations on a profit model, when profit must chase what people are currently paying attention to.

The second component to a nonprofit model has to do with the catch-22 that I mentioned in the last post. Print media has a way of formalizing the content at hand, at the expense of reach. Social media is instant and to some extent free, yet it is forgotten. One solution is to put the images in the hands of the people and organizations that can use them to further the mission of the Global Glacier Initiative, which is to increase glacier and climate change awareness. Thus, the images will be licensed to science, education, other nonprofits, and to climate outreach programs. If the glaciers are effectively owned by humanity, then their beauty should reach as many as possible.

An Idea is Born

Konkordiaplatz, Switzerland. The German word “Konkordia” originates with the latin word for harmony, a fitting representation to the mission behind documenting the glaciers.

Sometimes big ideas show up without announcing themselves with much fanfare in advance.

My personal fixation with glaciers dates back to the late 1990s. As a teenager, a studious friend of mine noted one of the first studies that made it to the popular mainstream that forecast the extinction of glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana by 2030. The concept struck me as not only unforgiveable; it yielded an immediate need to see them before they disappeared. It was simply unnatural to let them go by. Whatever the case, it was a visceral reaction then that remains equally as emotionally keen now.

While life did get in the way, it was September 2015 when I flew to every remaining glacier in Glacier National Park, using the same Piper PA-11 that I am flying today. That was part of a lineage of photography book projects, which isolated itself into a specific genre: chasing glaciers in various areas and documenting them.

After a false start in the Pyrenees (spoiler alert: they are basically all melted), I started visiting glaciers again in the Alps in 2018. That has continued in earnest, under the same author model, until now.

There is an advantage to putting one’s work in a book versus digital format. It allows for it to be tangibly held, to be considered at length, and for the matter at hand to get the attention it deserves. With modern digital tools, while reach can expand, attention lasts for a few seconds and is then forgotten. At the same token, a product that is available only for purchase is inherently limited. The message simply cannot get out equally as other methods. The result, for someone like me who wishes to give the glaciers the consideration they deserve, is something of a catch-22. 

It wasn’t a question of if I wanted to go to every glacier left on earth; it was clear where my desire would lie. The issue was coalescing a personal interest around something bigger than a series of trips, and certainly something bigger than some books. The glaciers mean more to humanity than a form of literary and artistic self-expression. They are owned by humanity, are disappearing as we speak, and they are hard to get to. How can one approach this mission in a way so as to accelerate it and get out of the catch-22? 

Unceremoniously, the concept sprung forth on February 10, 2021: the glaciers belong to humanity, and so should the process to get them and the photographs that come from them. To solve the ideological confrontation of doing the glaciers justice in an attention economy while accelerating the chase so that they do not disappear before the project is done, the idea behind the Global Glacier Initiative was born. It is an extension of what I was doing on a personal level for almost five years, itself which was seeded in the late 1990s when I heard that the glaciers were disappearing. For me, there is simply no other option than to see and document them before they disappear. It is an instinct.