Author Archives: Jonathan

The Living Glaciers of California – 140 Years Later

140 years ago John Muir published  an article in Harpers Magazine entitled “The Living Glaciers of California”.  According to Josiah Whitney,  the California State Geologist, “A more absurd theory was never advanced than that by which it was sought to ascribe to glaciers the sawing out of these vertical walls and the rounding of the domes.”

While he was not a geologist by training, Muir was a keen observer of landscapes and their patterns.  Through many summers wandering in the High Sierra certain clues had caught his attention.  He noticed in the high country how many of the rocks were polished to a smooth finish, with fine streak marks in them.  How there were places where large boulders had been inexplicably scattered across the surface of meadows.  And how up in the very highest parts of the mountains of Yosemite there were large snowfields.  Byers_LMsurvey-2

“One of the yellow days of last October, when I was among the mountains of the Merced group, following the footprints of the ancient glaciers that once flowed grandly from their ample fountains, reading what I could of their history as written in moraines and canyons and lakes and carved rocks, I came upon a small stream that was carrying mud I had not before seen.” ~J. Muir His Life and Letters, T. Gifford.

In 1872, he set out to measure the movement of these glaciers and end the controversy of the existence of glaciers in the Sierra Nevadamaclure_1939_2012_pair

“The Lyell Glacier is about a mile wide and less than a mile long, but presents, nevertheless, all the more characteristic features of large, river-like glaciers-moraines, earth-bands, blue-veins, crevasses etc., while the streams that issue from it are turbid with rock-mud, showing its grinding action on its bed. And it is all the more interesting since it is the highest and most enduring remnant of the great Tuolumne Glacier, whose traces are still distinct fifty miles away, and whose influence on the landscape was so profound. The McClure Glacier, once a tributary of the Lyell, is much smaller. Eighteen years ago I set a series of stakes in it to determine its rate of motion which towards the end of summer, in the middle of the glacier, I found to be a little over an inch in twenty-four hours.” ~J. Muir, The Yosemite, 1912.

If John Muir found the living glaciers of California, what is happening in these same places now?

In July and September of 2012 I returned to the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers with Byers_LMsurvey-1Greg Stock, the Yosemite National Park Geologist and Robert Anderson, a researcher at CU Boulder to find out what they look like 140 years after John Muir first measured them.

By placing PVC pipes into the glacier and measuring them with a laser rangefinder and GPS they have been able to track the downhill movement of these bodies of ice over time.   Over five years of study they have found that the Lyell Glacier has stopped moving, and the Maclure glacier is moving at about 22 feet per year, barely enough to sustain it’s status as a glacier.  If we take Muir’s measurements of “a little over an inch in twenty-four hours” – which translates to about 33 feet of movement per year.  While movement is important, what is particularly startling is the volume of ice lost.

While these days the tools are differential GPS and laser rangefinders instead of plumb lines and Whitebark Pine stakes, the goal remains the same: to better understand our world through empirical measurements.  What has changed are the outcomes.  In Muir’s time it was a revelation for people to realize that there were significant glaciers hiding high in the Sierra Nevada.  Now we are concerned about what the effects of these glaciers disappearing will be.  While few people visit the Lyell or Maclure Glaciers in a given year, the water from these glaciers visits the faucets of about 2.4 million people every day through runoff stored in Hetch Hetchy reservoir.  As usual, I find myself trying to explain, “Why does this actually matter?”  Well, I’ll let Bob Anderson tell you.  Oh, and look for Greg disappearing down into the ice cave in the background…

Want to see these places for yourself?  Stay tuned for a Yosemite Conservancy trip to these glaciers with Pete Devine, or field trips with us next summer!  For more, also check out photographer Kirk Keeler’s series on visiting these glaciers this past summer.








AAP in the News

Since the beginning Alpine of the Americas Project (AAP) has focused on developing meaningful ways to take on new outdoor adventures and provide valuable information for science at the same time. Today we’re thrilled to report to you our progress.

What happened?

On June 28, CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley featured AAP and shared our story of repeating historic photographs to document local effects of climate change.  The 3-minute piece summarized our rephotography work in the Sierras and Patagonia and sharing these photos with local communities and climate scientists. We’re proud the piece was beautiful and simple, though there is still much more to tell.

What’s Next?

We’re working hard to get individuals out on their own repeating historic photos this summer as well as running a trip this summer in the high country of Yosemite National Park to facilitate and guide the experience of repeating historic photographs.

We’re also expanding our project’s reach. Students from Outward Bound California will be incorporating historic repeats into their curriculum as service projects to give their students a meaningful way to be adventurous while contributing to climate science. With our new relationships with RePhoto and meadow and forest succession scientists, we’re allowing the casual hiker an easier experience, closer to the beaten path. Meanwhile, we continue to find premiere athletes willing to go to remote places where scientists rarely have the time or budget to travel to. By expanding our reach we’ll become even more effective at contributing useful photographs to climate scientists and building a visual record of our changing watersheds.

Thanks for your participation, and see how you can get involved!

There’s an app for that!

rePhoto_screenshotWhen we got into this project we thought it would be great if we could make an app that would simplify the process of repeating photos.  Well, now there is!

We’ve partnered with Project rePhoto and have recently been testing the app with a few historic photos near Estes Park, Colorado.  We were extremely happy with our tests, and will eventually have our entire photo archive on to make it easy wherever you are.rePhoto_Estes_2_sm Big_Thompson_wide

The app is FREE to download, works on iOS and Android, shows you where the historic photos are on a map, uses an overlay to precisely line up the images, and then automatically puts them on the web for you, us, and everyone else to see!

Go get it for yourself, register for our project, Alpine of the Americas, and start repeating photographs easier than ever before!

AAP in the Patagon Journal

Patagonia in Time / Patagonia en el Tiempo
This article appeared in the 2013 Austral Summer issue of the Patagon Journal.
Read it at

When we look out at the grand landscapes of
Patagonia it is hard to imagine them changing.
From the massive rumbling glaciers of
Mount Tronador, to the clean granite spires
of the Fitz Roy range, to the steep peaks and clear blue
lakes of Torres del Paine, these landscapes seem timeless./Cuando observamos las grandiosas vistas de
la Patagonia es difícil imaginar que cambian.
Desde los masivos y estruendosos glaciares
del Monte Tronador y las limpias agujas de
granito del cordón del Fitz Roy, hasta los escarpados
picos y los claros lagos azules de Torre del Paine, estos
parajes parecen eternos.

Crowd Sourcing

Since the inception of this project we have believed that having people see the changes for themselves is always a more powerful experience than just looking at them on their computers.  This year we have been focusing on reaching out and communicating about what we are doing to get more people involved.  One of the people who has repeated a photo recently is Eric Guth, an accomplished photographer with a strong interest in ice as well.

Rio Blanco

I had tried getting to this location last year but had been turned back by incredibly high winds.  Eric managed to get to the spot of the de Agostini photo and put a cairn of rocks so others can find the same spot in the future.

An interesting thing I found while spending time in the climbing community in El Chalten, Argentina, is that sometimes people repeat historic photographs without even knowing it.  Cerro Solo is a popular “warmup” climb for the bigger mountains around El Chalten and climbers Marcus Loane and Colin Haley had both taken photos from exactly the same place on the summit as the first ascentionists from the Club Andino Bariloche.

Cerro_Solo_Threepeat_smLooking at these photo pairs allows us to see into the past.  The blue line on the right photo shows the approximate glacier surface level in 1949.  We can even see the movement of a large patch of rocks on the surface of the Torre Glacier between Marcus’ photo in 2009 and Colin’s photo in 2012.

To be noted is that the date on the Club Andino photo is 1950, as that is the date it was published, but the photo was taken in March 1949.  Because there are no records of exactly when many historic photos were taken, we often reference the date they were published instead.

For us this is the beginning of much more work getting people out to these places to repeat photos and see the changes first hand.  Many of the photos we have repeated and hope to have repeated are in places people pass regularly, and if you are interested in repeating photos, contact us!  Some big projects are afoot and we’re excited for the future!

Local Issues with Global Connections

Last week my Alpine of the Americas partner, Jonathan Byers, touched down in Santiago, Chile and made his way south to the tiny Gaucho town of Perto Bertrand to set-up base camp for the next five months. After two weeks, he’s already taught glaciology on the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet, to high school students from Nido de Aguilas, an international school in Santiago. He’s helping them understand how their own homes are connected to these ice sheets, even though they are countless horizons away.

Yet we don’t have to travel across the world to see these changes. They are right here at home. Hurricane Sandy has been a huge lesson for the North East Coast and unfortunately for many people recognizing these changes takes them coming and knocking on our doors.  Even here in San Francisco, we have been touched and reminded how vulnerable we are.  In these challenging times it is rewarding to see is the humanity that arises when we are faced with a collective struggle.

The Earth’s changing climate is affecting us all but in many unique and unpredictable ways. Alpine of the Americas goal is to use simple, repeatable, and useful observations to help us tell the story of how our environments are changing. Few people read the scientific papers that tell us how the world is changing, so we strive to generate the content that stimulates conversations of how local communities must adapt to and mitigate climate change.

What this ultimately requires are local, personal connections. Its been 6 weeks since Jonathan and I took a group of Presidians to Yosemite to repeat historic photos of the Dana Glacier to be the first beings to witness the Sierra Nevada’s changes from a this unique perspective. This group became participants by capturing images that can tell the story of how our changing snowpack is affecting Californians today.

Morgan Matthews looks down on a lake below Mt. Dana

Morgan Matthews looks down on a lake below Mt. Dana

While these glaciers are an important legacy of past ice ages their value lies in how they are indicators of less water being stored in snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.  These mountains are the sole water source in the late summer for Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides 25% of the fresh drinking water for the City of San Francisco.  While these glaciers seem remote and disconnected from daily life, they are directly connected to the faucets that millions of people depend on every day. This week, the outcome of Proposition F will determine if the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will spend $8 million to determine the feasibility of removing this dam.

We honor our participants who create this story through photographs, who tell it to help others understand that the safety and security of our lives depends on how we relate to the world.

In Chile, Patagoinia’s glaciers are diminishing too, but this is only an indicator of a larger story. Jonathan is now based at the heart of Chile’s largest environmental and social debate. Downstream from his guide cabin at Patagonia Adventure Expeditions, is the second largest alpine Ice Cap in the world. Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) from the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet periodically discharge enormous masses of water down this already voluminous river. Yet downstream hidroAysen plans to build two hydrodams on the Baker River to generate energy for Chile’s copper mines thousands of miles north in the Atacama desert, even though the this high desert has the world’s highest yields for solar energy. Needless to say, hidroAysen’s risky investment of placing two dams on Rio Baker’s unstable hydrology is being criticized in Chile.

Santiago_Protests_QProtests against the proposed Baker and Pascua River Dams in Santiago last month. Photo by James Q Martin

The Nido de Aguilas students dream of an economy in which they can thrive. Economic progress is necessary, but unsustainable growth doesn’t necessarily create the desired end. Will 1,864 miles of power lines through Chile’s National Parks and/or into neighboring Argentina justify bringing energy to Santiago and the copper mines to the north, when alternatives exist? We’re skeptical. Alpine of the Americas helps individuals become part of the conversation, to stimulate discourse that influences decision makers. We do not claim to know the answers, but when faced with a crisis, we believe that people can work together to be proactive and create positive solutions for our changing world.

Next Best Thing to a Time Machine

I’ve never gotten to go in a time machine but until they invent one repeat photography is about as close as I’ll get.

The process starts slowly:  mining the internet, talking to museum archivists, getting hundreds of old photographs with vague descriptions of locations from scientists, leafing through beautiful old books that are worth more than my camera, and ending up with thousands of historic photographs, sketches, and maps on my computer.Lago Dickson Threepeat

Days are spent pouring over maps and working in Google Earth to try to align mountains, glaciers, and ridges, figuring out the most likely area the photo was taken from and how to get there.  From this point it’s time to go to the nearest town, print out the black and white images on paper, load up my backpack with tent, stove, food, and camera gear and go into the mountains.  Some photos can be gotten on an afternoon run, others require multiple days of hiking to get to.

Then the psychology starts.  To find the precise location of  a photograph I find that I need to get into the mind of the photographer I am repeating.  Through repeating many photos I start to learn where different photographers liked standing and what subjects interested them. Alberto de Agostini, a mountaineer at heart, liked shooting from high ridges with grand views.  G.K. Gilbert, a photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, really liked unique rocks and landscapes.  When I look with this knowledge I can almost intuitively know where they might have stood.Rio_Blanco_Perspectives_sm

Finally it clicks.  Walking along a ridge, seeing two boulders and thinking “Yep.  That is exactly where de Agostini stood.”  Seeing a rock outcrop and thinking, “If I were G.K. Gilbert, that is where I would have taken this photo from.”  And it all comes together.  Get the print out of my pocket, hold it up, and I have a window into the past.

Sometimes the changes are obvious, sometimes subtle, but standing in the same location and being able to see how it looked 50, 80, 100, years ago is an incredible experience.  The next best thing to a time machine: a time window.

Don’t take my word for it, go try it!Fitz_Road_sm

Conservation and Development in Patagonia: An Alternative Vision

“Well what happens when you get to the edge of the cliff.  Do you take one step forward or do 180° turn and take one step forward?  Which way are you going?  Which is progress?  The solution to many of the world’s problems maybe to turn around and to take a forward step.  You can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work.”

–Yvon Chouinard

I’ve been taking a bit of a break in February from rephotography to explore the current state of conservation in Patagonia.  Right now is a fascinating time to be here as this region faces many options for future development.

The big question here and in many other places in the world is: How can a country that is faced with national and international development pressures develop in a way that respects the local environment and people while still contributing to the national economy and allowing the improvements in quality of life that the people want?

At the beginning of February I walked the Aysen Glacier Trail (AGT) with Jonathan Leidich, founder and guide of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions.  He came to Chile about 20 years ago looking for a blank spot on the map and found that in Puerto Bertrand.  Over the last two decades of living there he has developed a deep connection to the town and with gauchos living in remote valleys, a life virtually unchanged in the last century.  Through working with these rural estancias he has built a trail that follows the watershed loop from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field to the Baker River.  In walking up windswept valleys, crossing a major glacier, passing active glacier research sites, and ending at Sol de Mayo, his working ranch 35km from the nearest road, guests get a deep experience of “real” Patagonia.

It is immediately clear that Jonathan is not interested in standard tourism development.  His trips are limited to six guests at a time and the infrastructure is minimal to give guests a real experience interacting with the beauty and the challenges of Patagonia.  He works with scientists to support cutting edge research in geology and ecology, and works with education groups to bring students into the mountains to learn about glaciers and the beginnings of watersheds.

Just across the Rio Baker valley from the Aysen Glacier Trail is the Future Patagonia National Park.  This former estancia, Valle Chacabuco, was purchased by Kris Tompkins and the organization Conservacion Patagonica.  They have been removing the fences and ranch infrastructure to restore native habitat and building up infrastructure to turn it over to the Chilean government as a national park.  A huge undertaking, and one that is faced with many difficulties, from public acceptance to having no precedent for restoring Patagonian grasslans.  They are working on developing a volunteer program to get visitors, mostly Chileans, involved in the restoration of the park with the hope that in the future these people will be advocates for it’s preservation.  Their goal is to get this park to be as large of a draw as Torres del Paine, creating jobs in the local economy in a way that does not depend on resource extraction.

This all is set in a background of the recent protests in the Aysen Region of Chile where people are protesting about a wide range of things from the development of international fishing and the proposed construction of five major dams to high gas prices.  Things are changing in Aysen and clearly the residents do not like how they are changing.

How does this all fit together?  In a region with significant natural resources, it either faces continued development of hydroelectric dams, mines, tree plantations, and salmon farming or it needs to figure out a more sustainable way to contribute to the economy of Chile.  An alternative vision to an economy based on resource extraction would be an economy based on resource enjoyment.  By developing infrastructure to allow large scale tourism, the Aysen region has the potential to become one of the most popular areas in Chile and Argentina.While that would require sacrificing the quiet nature of the region, people will have to decide.

We all share a future together.  How do we want that future to be?




*Note about photographs –  You may notice JB watermarks appearing on photographs throughout this site.  I’m not trying to prevent people from enjoying my work, I’ve just had some issues with photo rights.  Please contact me at if you are interested in purchasing prints of any of these photos.

No Doubt

When you arrive in a town and the first things people tell you about are how they’ve never seen so much good weather, how the trees are turning fall colors months early because it is so dry, how the approach to the Torre valley that climbers have been using for half a century is too dangerous to continue using because the glacier is receding, there is no doubt about the changes.  People who spend their time in the mountains, who make their living in the mountains see it every day.  There is no doubt.

Yet for the people who do not interact with these landscapes, it is easy to keep thinking that nothing has changed.  The changes are more subtle.  More fights over water rights, ski areas only having fake snow into late January, and restrictions on when people can water their lawns.  The real question is how to connect people with these changes in a way that they understand.  At Alpine of the Americas Project we see repeat photography not only as a useful tool for scientific research, but also as an extremely powerful way of communicating these changes to people who don’t see it for themselves.  In a world that relies heavily on visual communication, we hope that showing people the huge changes that are occurring in alpine areas will contribute to people taking ownership for our collective impacts.

The last few weeks in El Chalten, Argentina, has been an interesting experience in contrasts.  The town is nestled at the base of the Fitz Roy group of mountains.  The town has only been in existence for 25 years and was established to lay claim to land that both Argentina and Chile say they own.  While the economy of the town is based on taking people out into the mountains to experience the spectacular natural beauty, the town itself has a lot to figure out.  Trash is dumped in a big open pile by the river, and four generators run full blast day and night to power the town.  The town has no plan for development and is facing the pressure of rapidly increasing tourism and development.  As with any time a community faces rapid changes, whether it is a small mountain town or a global community, they need to come together and decide what they want and what action they need to take.

We are currently focusing on writing a handful of grants for the American Alpine Club and National Geographic to secure funding for another year of this project.   We’ve also been focusing on getting other people out repeating photographs for us.  The photo above is of the road near El Chalten, which is now a paved two lane highway.  Hopefully a few Canadian cyclists will be able to get this photo.  In the mean time, be well.

Storm over the Rio Baker

Yes, our project is focused on the changes happening in glaciers and alpine ecosystems due to global climate change.  This is the core of what we do, but the reason why most people really care about this is the effects it has on populations.  As our climate changes it will cause dramatic and unpredictable hydrological, social, and ecological changes.  The Rio Baker in the Aysen region of Chile is a focal point for all of these issues. 

The Baker River, the largest river in Chile by volume, flows out of Lago General Carrera.  Fed by glacial melt coming off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, the second largest ice mass outside of the polar regions, it winds down through lakes and valleys before flowing into the ocean in the town of Tortel.  The controversy surrounds a project to build five hydroelectric dams by the multinational power company hidroAysen on this river, and a subsequent 1,200 miles of high-voltage power lines necessary to distribute the power up to Santiago, Chile.

In this process, we are trying to not take the role of advocates against the dams.  We are hoping to understand this controversy better and be able to share the realities of what this means for the river ecosystem and for the communities involved in this.  To see more photos visit our gallery on Facebook.From talking to people in the area there is a strong division between the people who support that construction of the dams and those who are opposed.  Because the Chilean economy and education systems are highly privatized, many families have trouble affording education for their children or being able to make a living in these rural areas.  When hidroAyisen offers them $400,000 US or more to buy their land to put a power line across it, few people can afford not to take that offer.  At the same time many people see the potential to work building the dams, roads, power lines, and other infrastructure that will accompany this project and see it as a much needed boost to the local economy.  To continue growing its economy, particularly the highly lucrative copper mining in the north, Chile believes it will need to double it’s energy capacity in the next 15 years.  The hidroAysen project would supply 35% of the current total energy capacity of Chile, and would help reduce the dependence on neighboring Argenitna for natural gas imports.

The people who oppose it say it will destroy the things that make this remote area of Patagonia special and worth living in or visiting.  Because the hydroelectric companies own a significant portion of the total water rights to the Baker River, many farmers will no longer be allowed to irrigate their land if hydroAysen actually claims their water rights.  Furthermore, if they are able to secure the right of way for the 1,200 miles of power lines, the rights to cut the trees and the mineral rights underneath will be allocated to other companies to develop creating one of the largest single clear-cuts in the world.  For the local guides who run rafting trips on this spectacular section of the Baker River, they will have to switch to kayaking on a lake as the upper Baker River dam site will inundate these popular class IV and V rapids.

If this wasn’t enough, the biggest problem is that hydroAysen has not studied the volatility of the upstream glaciers at all.  The Colonia Glacier flows off the Northern Patagonia Ice Field and blocks the flow of a small river.  This creates a natural dam of ice.  When the lake fills up and builds up enough pressure it breaks through the ice holding it back releasing a flood of water down towards the Baker River.  As the Colonia Glacier retreats due to global warming these floods, called Glacier Lake Outburst Floods or GLOF’s, are only expected to get bigger.  Not only would these contribute to filling the downstream reservoirs with sediments very rapidly, if one of these GLOF’s caused a failure of a dam on the Baker River the flood would completely wipe out many homes, including the entire town of Tortel.

As it currently stands, the construction of these dams has been approved by the Chilean government, but are being held up by a case in the supreme court.  A decision is expected on this in the next few months.  What does the future hold for these dams?  No one really seems to have any idea what the ultimate decision will be, but we will continue talking to people and learning more about this.  If a decision is made we can only hope it will be well informed.