A 3.8 Billion-Pixel Tour Of Mount Everest

Photographer David Breashears of GlacierWorks was on All Things Considered Monday to talk about a new way of photographing the Himalayan region: By stitching together 400-plus images into one giant, zoomable, interactive image — or a "gigapan" containing more than a billion pixels.

He and his team just sent us something even cooler that they're currently working on: a Mount Everest you can explore, containing an estimated 3.8 billion pixels!

Here's how it works:

See those little green squares? Those are hot spots. Click one, and you'll zoom into that location. The square that's second up from the bottom, toward the left, for example: That will take you to a little village of tents — Everest base camp. Click on the tent, and you can go in. You'll see a photo exhibit that was mounted by Breashears there. And then, click on one of the photos, and you'll head back out to the mountain.

Breashears and his team allowed us to embed this teaser image on our site. But, he says, this barely scratches the surface of where the project is headed. "It's hardly even a demo," he tells me over the phone. "It's missing 99 percent of its functionality, which is audio and video and the ability to access other curated content."

When complete in a few months, this will serve as a completely interactive tour of Mount Everest. You will be able to go into the Tibetan monastery, get to know the sherpas who work with the GlacierWorks team, or learn more about glaciology and the history of climbing.

"You'll be able to choose, and it'll all be there in an image," says Breashears. "But the image starts the narrative."

Kyetrak Glacier

The black-and-white image below shows the Kyetrak Glacier in the Himalayas photographed in 1921 by Maj. E.O. Wheeler/Royal Geographical Society. It's compared with a 2009 image by David Breashears/GlacierWorks.

"Rich interactive narrative," as Breashears calls it, is his specialty. And he insists that GlacierWorks — which he created to document changes to ice over time — is not about advocacy or activism. It's about education, he says. His goal is to provide photographs as tools to teachers and students, because in photos, "the change, or lack of change, is there, discernible and irrefutable."

Breashears started GlacierWorks in 2007. He began by pairing old photographs of the Himalayan region taken by early mountaineers and dating back to the early 1900s with current photographs. Layered on top of each other, the images are a stark testament to just how much has melted.

Main Rongbuk Glacier

The black-and-white image of the Main Rongbuk Glacier on the northern slope of Mount Everest was originally captured by George Mallory/Royal Geographical Society in 1921 — and is compared with a 2007 photograph taken by David Breashears/GlacierWorks.

Eventually, he explains, these "match photographs" will be integrated with the gigapan interactive. To shoot the gigapan, Breashears stood exactly where photographers stood decades ago and framed the new image in the same way as the original. That way, when you're exploring the modern image, you'll be able to peel it back and see how the ice has changed shape.

"The real struggle," says Breashears, "is that we're trying to show something that's happening in extreme slow motion. ... [When] you're looking at glaciers, you can sit there and stare at them for a long time and nothing happens. They don't talk to you; their stories are ones that you understand through science."

"The idea of connecting people with this environment, with this ice they're climbing on and this ice that's changing, is to bring a human element to it."

For most of us, after all, you have to see it to believe it.

Listen to the All Things Considered interview with Breashears.

All imagery courtesy of David Breashears and GlacierWorks. See the original image on their site.

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