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Photos Capture Melting Splendor of Alaska's Glaciers

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Photos Capture Melting Splendor of Alaska's Glaciers

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Photos Capture Melting Splendor of Alaska's Glaciers

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

About 70 years ago aerial photographer Bradford Washburn flew over Alaska's glaciers, documenting their splendor while looking for mountain climbing routes.

Now a Boston photojournalist is following in his footsteps with a very different purpose. He is re-shooting Washburn's images to document the effects of global warming. Ed Schoenfeld of CoastAlaska News reports from Juneau.

ED SCHOENFELD: David Arnold sits on a bench outside a helicopter tour office waiting for his charter flight. He shuffles through a collection of 1930s photographs showing Alaska glaciers from the air. They were taken by Bradford Washburn, a mountain climber, mapmaker and museum director.

Mr. DAVID ARNOLD (Photojournalist): The most remarkable thing about Brad's pictures is the artistic quality of them. And actually, what you see today is the loss of art. The forces, the confrontations that so enamored him are gone.

SCHOENFELD: The glaciers Washburn found were massive. But many have since lost much of their ice. Arnold's goal this day is to shoot the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau and learn how it has changed since Washburn flew by in 1937.

A mountain ringed ice field almost the size of Rhode Island is the Mendenhall's birthplace. The fractured, twisting river of ice winds its way down a dozen miles of high walled valley.

(Soundbite of engine running)

SCHOENFELD: Tour buses bring more than 350,000 people a year to gawk at its face, a wall of ice more than 100 feet high and a mile wide. Many also take in the local visitor's center with a talking left behind rock called a glacial erratic.

Unidentified Voice: I am a granite boulder. The grinding of the glacial ice caused me to break off the side of the mountain and tumble down 60 feet.

SCHOENFELD: Washburn found a far calmer scene when he took his shots 70 years ago. That image shows the Mendenhall flowing into a tree spotted valley, largely free of human habitation. Today, Arnold finds the area cluttered with shopping malls, suburban subdivisions and a modern airport. That makes replicating the shot difficult.

Mr. ARNOLD: Shooting the Mendenhall in Juneau is the first time I've looked at so much development, so much physical change, human change, just buildings and development. And that turned out to be, for me, very disorienting.

SCHOENFELD: But Arnold is ready to try.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

SCHOENFELD: He climbs into the helicopter, prepared to juggle his cameras while coping with wind, cold fingers and tearing eyes. But according to biographer Mike Sfraga, it's nothing compared to what Washburn had to handle.

Mr. MIKE SFRAGA (Washburn biographer): At 16,000, 18,000 feet, he would hang out of the plane, and his pilot would do a choreography over the mountains.

SCHOENFELD: Sfraga says Washburn's passion overcame the challenges of heavy camera gear and cold temperatures.

Mr. SFRAGA: He was sitting on a wooden box with big leather gloves on and big floppy hat with fur inside of it and big parkas and mukluks.

SCHOENFELD: It took two flights in the helicopter, but Arnold found Washburn's angle.

Mr. ARNOLD: I was amazed at how much the glacier had retreated.

SCHOENFELD: Arnold's photograph shows a smaller, thinner Mendenhall. Its crumpled white image is much less of a presence than in Washburn's earlier picture.

Mr. ARNOLD: I suppose if you're going to be poetic about matching up the development with the demise or the slowly shrinking glacier, I suppose this is the shot.

SCHOENFELD: Arnold is working for the same institution Washburn directed for 40 years, the Boston Museum of Science. Eventually, his shots will be paired with Washburn's for public display.

For NPR News, I'm Ed Schoenfeld in Juneau.

SIEGEL: You can see Washburn and Arnold's photos of Alaska's glaciers then and now on our Web site,

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