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David Breashears documents Glacial Recession in the “Rivers of Ice” Exhibition at the MIT Museum

In the early 20th century, a few brave people like George Mallory, Major E.O. Wheeler, and Vittorio Sella donned hobnail boots and risked life and limb to see and photograph the incredible glaciers and vistas of the Himalayas.

Over the last few years, David Breashears, filmmaker, explorer, and mountaineer, has summited Everest five times, painstakingly tracing his predecessors’ steps in order to take virtually the same pictures. As founder of GlacierWorks, his mission is to foster dialogue to encourage better understanding of the mechanisms and consequences of climate change.

Breashears documented glacial recession with a wide-angle lens for Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Himalaya. His wall size images—displayed for maximum impact—deliver. Awesome are the vast valleys bare of their immense ice blankets in seemingly life size portrayal. Lost are valleys of majestic ice pinnacles reaching 15 stories high. The people in some of the images—who appear to be about the size of gnats—reveal how small the exhibit’s photos are in comparison to reality. The loss of glacial ice, which appears as mere inches or feet on the museum’s walls, is actually hundreds of feet. This experience should stop those that normally dismiss glacial loss alarm as overzealous environmentalism midsentence.

“I’m hopeful that the exhibit challenges the viewers’ assumptions while evoking a deep curiosity and generating a thoughtful and intelligent dialogue and the desire to learn more about the condition of the little-known glaciers at the ‘Roof of the World,’” Breashears said.

Platform for Climate Change Discussion

At the opening on April 13, 2012, MIT Museum Director John Durant walked guests through a 360º display of the Wheeler and Breashears panoramas, discussing the loss of “blue earth.” Simple data plaques lying at the base of each photograph throughout the exhibition report the facts straight—who took the picture, where, when, and what is missing in between. According to Durant, the images show a loss of anywhere from 100 to 300-400 feet glacial recession in places like Rongbuk, West Rongbuk, the Lower Baltoro, and shown below, at Kyetrak.

The exhibit also features the hobnail boots of yesteryear, various cameras, and a specially designed viewer by New York City-based Thinc design that examines the rim of the Janna Glacier in 1899 and 2009. In neon light, the viewer traces the loss of 275 feet of glacial ice for the human eye.

According to the museum website, “The Himalayan glaciers are the subject of intense scientific study, with results that are sometimes in conflict…the exhibition gives us an ideal platform for opening discussions about climate change, about water resources and, fundamentally, about how science works.” The museum plans to hold discussions and post news as it comes during the exhibition, which runs through March 2013.

Breashears endured extreme challenge and hardship to record his images, Durant noted. While scientists and explorers do their work for knowledge, “they also go and do this because it’s fascinating. This area of research is a case in point,” he said.

Following opening night’s guided tours, a sobering and inspiring panel highlighted the reality of Himalayan glacial loss to the more than 1 million people dependent on these watersheds. According to Susan Murcott of the MIT Civil Engineering Department, who focuses on water and sanitation in developing countries and works closely with the Nepalese, adaptive technologies to reserve and water bank are in their early stages. With such intense glacial melt, those that live in the Himalayas must be cognizant that future water scarcity in a warmer world where the glaciers have mostly disappeared is entirely possible.

Kyetrak Glacier, 2009

David Breashears Courtesy of GlacierWorks, 2009

Photo Courtesy of GlacierWorks, 2009

Kyetrak Glacier, 1921

E.O.Wheeler Courtesy of Royal Geographical Society, 1921

Photo Courtesy of Royal Geographical Society, 1921