Climate Equation: Coal + Ice = ?

A diminished glacier photographed by David Breashears in the Tibetan region. (Courtesy of Glacierworks)

We like to think of awe-inspiring landscapes as timeless. Certainly that was the way I regarded the Rongbuk Glacier when I first visited it in the fall of 2001. I was backpacking through Tibet for five weeks and had decided to stop overnight at the north base camp of Mount Everest, which was a short side trip from the road to Nepal. There, red-robed monks at a Tibetan monastery welcomed visitors.

Past the monastery, one could walk along the Rongbuk Glacier toward the upper base camps, passing large needles of ice en route. These seracs and the glacier looked to me like they had not changed in millenniums.

I was wrong, of course. As I write in Thursday’s Times, photographs taken in 2007 by David Breashears, the veteran mountaineer who helped make the Everest IMAX movie, showed that more than 330 vertical feet of ice had melted from the glacier in nearly nine decades, presumably because of climate change. Mr. Breashears measured the change by comparing his 2007 photographs with those of the same glacier taken in 1921 by George Mallory.

“The glacier was pretty healthy in 1921,” Mr. Breashears said on Sunday in Beijing. “This glacier should be in better shape because it collects accumulation during the monsoon. Yet it’s a dead glacier.”

He spoke while pointing out a large panoramic video projection that contrasted his photos with those of Mr. Mallory. The video is a central part of “Coal + Ice,” a multimedia project on view at Three Shadows Photography Art Center, the most prestigious space in China for photography.

The exhibition is an ambitious attempt to depict both the causes and the impacts of climate change. It starts with photographs of coal mines and miners in China and several other countries, then goes on to underscore the devastating effects of coal-burning and greenhouse gas emissions by showing the startling amount of ice that Himalayan glaciers have lost in recent decades.

The final part of the exhibition is dominated by photos taken by Clifford Ross that show violent waves crashing to shore during hurricane season on Long Island, making the point that extreme weather is expected to become more frequent because of climate change.

I took a private tour of the exhibition with the curators on Sunday. Mr. Ross told me he had not thought before of linking his wave photos to the issue of climate change, since he had always thought of his images as “related to the sublime.” But the curators showed him a new way of looking at his photographs.

“The emotional force they’ve created with my work is greater than I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “I’m happy to be used in this way.”

Here’s another image from the show as well as an installation view:

Geng Yunsheng

A Chinese coal miner, from a series titled “Zhenxiong, YiLeung and Zhaotong, Yunnan Province,” in the exhibition “Coal + Ice” at the Three Shadows gallery in Beijing.

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Visitors took in photographs by Vittorio Sella, foreground, and David Breashears, at rear, on Tuesday at the “Coal + Ice” exhibition. Organized by Asia Society, the show explores the complex consequences of dependence on fossil fuels.

Source: The New York Times



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