David Breashears holds George Mallory’s 1921 image of the Main Rongbuk Glacier in front of how it looked in 2007. GlacierWorks photo.
The MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts decided to launch its first big public exhibit on a controversial aspect of “one of the most complicated and difficult issues to deal with, scientifically, politically, and publicly”—climate change. So said museum director John Durant at Friday’s press preview of “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya.”
For five years now, David Breashears, the mountaineer and filmmaker, has been photographing vantage points climbers captured 80 and more years ago. Breashers stood in the same places they had. The modern and old photographs pair up on walls and panels, enough to elicit a gasp or two. Scientists have measured hundreds of feet of “vertical loss” since the 1920s, but a nonscientist doesn’t have to read the numbers below the photos: it’s very obvious that things are changing. For this exhibit, Breashears’s company GlacierWorks collaborated with the museum and the design firm Thinc.
Despite scientific consensus that worldwide climate is changing due to elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Breashears said the effect of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers is not clear. “The more we discovered, the more we realized the glaciers are idiosyncratic,” he told a group of journalists and funders on April 13, the day the exhibit opened.
The modern panoramas, several as 21-foot-long panels, of these frozen rivers, are mounted next to the older photographs at the same locations below Mount Everest, Cho Oyu, and the more northerly Kharakorum range. At the entrance to the exhibit visitors pass a giant satellite photo of Asia on which the major rivers are marked and labeled. It’s easy to see that if the glaciers in the mountains continue to melt, water supplies for millions of people could be in jeopardy. I am working on a longer piece about the exhibit, and Breashears’ work, in the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of Appalachia.