As the weather clock ticks down, an aviator races to photograph glaciers
By NAT CASTAÑEDA
VOSS, Norway (AP) — Chunks of ice float in milky blue water. The clouds move and hide towering mountain tops. The deeper you go to the surface, the louder the water roars and the stronger the ice “CRACK” as chunks fall from Europe’s largest glacier arm.
The landscape is vast, elemental, seemingly far beyond the human scale. The whole world, it seems, lies spread out before you. Against this hulking backdrop, the plane carrying the glacier-chasing man looks almost like a toy.
“There’s no one there,” the man marvels. “The air is virtually empty.”
This is Garrett Fisher’s playground and, you quickly realize, his life’s work.
He is traveling the world, watching it from far above, sitting in the seat of his tiny blue-white “Super Cub” plane. It is here that he combines his two lifelong passions, photography and flight, in a quest to document all the remaining glaciers on the face of the Earth.
On one level, Fisher, 41, does it for one simple reason: “Because I love them.”
But he does it, too, for things of greater weight. Because the climate clock is ticking and the planet’s glaciers are melting. Because Fisher is convinced that documenting, archiving and remembering all this has a purpose.
Because, in the end, nothing lasts forever, not even ancient glaciers.
Glaciers are not static. In a world that is warming, they are getting smaller.
“In 100 or 200 years, most of them will be gone or severely reduced,” says Fisher. “It’s the front line of climate change… the first indication that we’re missing something.”
According to to the data According to the European Environmental Agency, the Alps, for example, have lost close to half their volume since 1900, with the most evident acceleration in melting since the 1980s. And the retreat of the glaciers is expected to continue in the future.
EEA estimates say that by 2100, the volume of European glaciers will continue to decrease by between 22% and 84%, and that in a moderate scenario. A more aggressive model suggests that up to 89% could be lost.
“We have a record of observations of small glaciers in populated areas, particularly in the Alps, Norway and New Zealand,” says Roderik van de Wal, a glacier expert at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. That record, he says, shows the glaciers receding even further. “That is a consequence of climate change.”
The slow disappearance of the glaciers, of course, is a problem that transcends aesthetics or even the glaciers themselves. Sea level rise of about 15 centimeters worldwide over the past century is due in large part to melting glaciers.
What sets that clock ticking. And that he has set Garrett Fisher in motion.
For Fisher, it began, as so many things do for so many people, in childhood.
He grew up in a quiet rural community in upstate New York, the son of local business owners and the grandson of a struggling pilot who introduced him early to aviation. He lived next to a private airport.
Fisher was just a little boy when his grandfather Gordon dropped him in the back of his plane. The boy wasn’t happy about it, but the dismay quickly turned to joy. At 4 years old, he was hooked on flying.
Fisher remembers the endless hours she spent staring out her bedroom window, waiting for the barn door of her grandfather’s aircraft hangar to open. The eldest told him: “Whatever you set your mind to, you can do.”
Then, as a young man, he took up photography. Two of the three parts of his obsession were in his place.
Sometime in the late 1990s, a friend told Fisher that the world’s glaciers were disappearing. He has haunted him ever since, so much so that he added the third piece of the triangle: the urge to beat the clock.
He watched them disappear, and he wanted to make sure that these pieces of the world, pieces that he found indescribably beautiful, would be preserved, if only in pixels.
“When I’m up high, I see these no-go views,” he says. “These are views that you can’t have on the ground, that don’t really exist for anyone else.”
He aims his efforts directly at posterity. He believes that any documentation he does of the glaciers before they disappeared could be invaluable to future generations. For this reason, he has launched a glacier initiativea non-profit organization to support and exhibit his work, and he plans to open his archive to the public for research, some now, the rest when he’s gone.
Fisher isn’t the first to feel the archival instinct when it comes to glaciers. Since the invention of photography in the first decades of the 19th century, glaciers have been documented with fascination by everyone from travelers to scientists.
Norwegian photographer Knud Knudsen, one of his country’s founding art photographers, delved into the landscape with an obsession similar to Fisher’s. He traveled the west coast of Norway, photographing nature: fjords, mountains, waterfalls… and glaciers.
But at a time when everything about photography was heavy, unwieldy and slow, Knudsen was attached to the land, traveling by railcar and ship. On one trip, he brought about 175 pounds of equipment, including glass negatives. Unlike Fisher, he couldn’t fly, and he couldn’t capture the sensation of looking down on the vast and magnificent natural formations he was documenting in his homeland.
For Fisher, Norway is just the last glacial frontier. He spent years documenting them elsewhere, including the American West, before turning his focus to the Alps and Europe. He has photographed thousands of glaciers and is hungry for more.
Yet never, even amid the silence and beauty of his flights, does Fisher lose his sense of documenting the “decisive moment,” the turning points of a glacier that is still here but in the process of disappearing.
He knows, with each flight, that he is documenting a slow-moving tragedy as it unfolds.
The Piper Super Cub is a small two-seater. Fisher enters. He is about to ascend to skies of glass and cotton in the hope of photographing Nigardsbreen.
“There is about a 30% chance that we will get to see the glacier,” he says. “There are a lot of clouds sitting right there.”
The Piper feels, and rumbles, like an old car. It smells like oil and fuel and everything is manual. Fisher brings his iPad for navigation, but his aviation software has no GPS information on the glaciers. He then flies using a mixture of instinct, observation and Google Maps.
The plane’s huge glass windows offer incredible views. When it’s airborne, the houses start to feel like Monopoly pieces. Anxiety dissipates in moments of deep peace. It’s as if the altitude, the distance from the world we know, makes everything that happens on the planet below seem a little more manageable. And yet she knows: one wrong move would end all of this.
“The weather is bad, it’s very cold, the winds are very strong and the flight is extremely technically challenging,” says Fisher. “And for photographing glaciers, we are getting very close to all this action. Therefore, it requires a lot of skill, time and determination.”
Many people are afraid of flying, especially in small planes. When the news comes that a plane has crashed, it is usually a small craft.
And he adds: “Many pilots have told me I’m crazy.”
Many glaciers are remote and difficult to reach or document except by satellite or air, making the little Super Cub the perfect vehicle for this photo tour. It’s built to navigate the windy winds and hazardous environments required for your job.
Why risk it? Fisher believes that satellite imagery will never capture glaciers effectively, aesthetically or scientifically. The glow of a glacier at the “magic hour”. The way the shadow falls on the ice, revealing an endless, indefinable blue. The sheer epic presence of these ice goliaths who are in a constant state of impropriety.
Will the engine shut off? He has detailed plans in case of a glacier accident. He has calculated that he can survive for about 24 hours if he falls and has measured the tail of the plane to make sure he can fit in it and stay out of the elements while he waits for help. Not for the faint of heart.
Fisher moves a lot: the United States, Spain, Norway. He rarely stops. His wife, Anne, his childhood friend, drags him to bed most nights; left to his own devices, he says, he would hardly sleep. This is what happens to people so focused on one thing that everything else starts to fall apart.
So far, Fisher has paid for his passion with his own money, but it’s not cheap; he is running out of funds and is looking for sponsors.
Position the work carefully. It is, in many ways, science. In other ways, it is a public service. But he always comes back to one thing: beauty.
“Science has all the data we need. They have tons of data sets, which will be available in the future,” Fisher says. “The problem is that it’s not beautiful.”
What he does, he says, is something that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but can also encourage people to change their ways.
He adds: “It is not a data set. It’s a very motivating and emotionally compelling interpretation of these glaciers while they’re here. Because these views will not return.
Glaciers are a window to our past. Photography is also a window to our past. Garrett Fisher has combined these activities to ensure that there are many views of this moment available, and that anything that disappears will be remembered.
In the end, much of his work is about memory. But what about the here and now? Can a photograph communicate the profound experience of being in front of something that will soon be lost forever? In many ways, that is what his work is trying to solve.
The archive is what he has poured everything into, spending countless hours. And beyond the archival dreams, he dares to hope for a change.
If you find the right light, the right angle, the right time, then maybe people will care more. He’s chasing the perfect image; one so beautiful that it can make people and politicians take action. And if it’s not an image, then maybe a whole file will convince people to come, to look, to come closer, to pay attention.
“We can live without them. We will live without them,” says Fisher. “However, it pains us to lose them.”
Everything disappears. But not yet. There’s still time, and Garrett Fisher has a plane and a camera and he’s not turning around.
Associated Press writer Bram Janssen reported from Voss.