Melting away: Photo exhibition at Amherst College tracks disappearing glaciers in Alaska

Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2015

Even before scientists announced in January that 2014 had been the hottest year on record, signs of climate change had likely become clear to all but the most determined skeptics. Extreme weather events, from drenching downpours in some places to prolonged drought in others. Increased acidity in oceans and destruction of coral reefs. Dwindling snowpack in mountain ranges like California’s Sierra Nevada and Switzerland’s Alps.

Many scientists say signs of climate change have become particularly pronounced in the Arctic, from thawing permafrost to the loss of sea ice. Then there’s the retreat and outright disappearance of glaciers — a disturbing trend that’s documented in an eye-opening photo exhibition at Amherst College.

“Then and Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape,” at the Beneski Museum of Natural History, pairs numerous past and current photographs — some of them taken a century apart — of Arctic Alaska to reveal often dramatic alterations in the landscape. The large-scale photos show glaciers shrinking or disappearing altogether, shrubs and trees growing on what had previously been open stretches of tundra, and landscapes shifting as the underlying permafrost thaws.

The photos, on display through April 19, are part of a traveling exhibition produced by the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The exhibit’s curator and main photographer, Ken Tape, is an ecologist at the Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska/Fairbanks. He’s also a first-class topographical detective: Tape’s explorations in Alaska’s Arctic region over the past dozen years led him to numerous places for restaging many historical landscape photographs.

The exhibit, mounted on two floors of the Beneski, includes interactive computer stations that offer 360-degree photo panoramas — “virtual tours” — of various places in the Alaskan Arctic, with recorded narration and zoom-in capability. There are also displays about thawing permafrost and the methods scientists use to determine temperatures thousands of years ago, as well as how rising temperatures are changing the way of life of the Inuit in some places.

“The pictures are stunning,” said Tekla Harms, the Beneski director and a professor of geology at Amherst. “It’s a wonderful exhibit because it really illustrates the dynamic processes that shape our world. And the impact of climate change is something we study [in geology], so the exhibit dovetails very well with our role as a teaching museum.”

In fact, Harms notes that the exhibit begins right next to some of the Beneski’s most notable holdings: fossil skeletons of a mammoth, mastodon and other extinct creatures from tens of thousands of years ago, when much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered in ice. What better way to illustrate, she says, “that we live in a world of continuous, dynamic change.”

Glacial retreat

“Then and Now” is drawn in part from a book that Tape, a native Alaskan, published in 2010 in which he first produced past and present photographs of the Arctic. In an interview he gave last fall at Carleton College, where the traveling exhibit was then on display (and where he received his bachelor’s degree in geology), Tape explained that he took up serious photography after he graduated from Carleton in 1999, then spent many years tracking down old photographs in the Arctic, including some aerial shots.

Some of those pictures were taken by explorers and scientists in the region in the first decade of the 20th century, like Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, an American geologist who spent nine summers and six winters in northern Alaska between 1906 and 1914. The exhibit includes a separate panel on Leffingwell, who did mapping for the United States Geological Survey.

One of Leffingwell’s photos, juxtaposed with a modern one, provides perhaps the most dramatic example of glacial retreat. Leffingwell’s 1907 picture of Okpilak Glacier, located in the northern end of the Brooks (mountain) Range, shows a massive river of ice that fills much of the lower frame of the photo, then curls to the left and disappears from view behind a mountain.

In the second picture, from 2007, the ice has almost vanished from view; just a sliver is visible where the valley curls to the left, out of sight behind the mountain. Researchers estimate the glacier has retreated slightly over two kilometers — 1.25 miles — from its 1907 position.

“When you go to the Arctic, you get a sense that the place is timeless,” Tape said in his interview last fall. “That’s true in a lot of places. But that’s what makes the photos that have changes interesting, since there are virtually no man-made changes in the Arctic, unlike in other places. There’s no reason for it to change unless the climate is changing.”

Another massive ice flow, McCall Glacier, also in the northern Brooks Range, shows significant loss as well; exhibition notes say the ice has shrunk vertically by 130 to 140 feet.

As a contrast to shrinking ice, the exhibit features a number of comparison photos along Arctic stream and river beds, revealing how thick shrubs and small fir and alder trees are now growing in places that formerly had only grass or a handful of shrubs. In some cases, tiny trees normally stunted by cold are growing larger.

There’s also a dramatic shot of a thermokast — a large crevice, perhaps 6 feet wide, running across a long expanse of tundra, the result of thawing permafrost.

The cause of these changes seems pretty clear, exhibit notes say: After remaining largely stable for most of the past 8,000 years, the average temperature in the Arctic has risen about three degrees Fahrenheit in the past 100 years.

“Because of the lack of large-scale disturbances like fire, the vegetation up here exists in a delicate equilibrium with climate,” Tape writes on the website, a forum for polar scientists and photographers. “When large-scale changes in vegetation are observed, as is the case with the repeat photography covering much of northern Alaska, the changes can be attributed to climate.”

Stunning photography

Aside from its scientific and historical content, “Then and Now” offers, as Harms puts it, a stunning visual portrait of the Alaskan Arctic, with images that capture the grandeur of a harsh but beautiful region — views of distant, sharp-edged mountains framed by sweeping expanses of tundra on which not so much as a human footprint is evident.

The colors in the 360-degree photographs in the computer stations are particularly vivid, the intense green of the tundra set off in some cases by the sparkling blue of a stream or river. The audio tracks at these settings also include environmental sounds, like the legions of buzzing insects that make the tundra their home in the short Arctic summers.

The Arctic “is a beautiful place,” Harms said. “Unfortunately, what’s happening up there is not news to geologists. ... The exhibit is pretty much what I expected to see.”

But, she added, “A picture is worth a thousands words, so hopefully [the exhibit] will show others who maybe aren’t as familiar with the story just what’s going on.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Then and Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape” will be on view through April 19 at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College.

Museum hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m to 4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.


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