This is what a century of climate change has done to France’s biggest glacier

The 'Mur de Seracs' a part of the 'Mer de Glac. Image: Getty.

Like a one-man Google Earth, on 8 August 1909, Swiss aviation pioneer Eduard Spelterini flew a gas-filled balloon from the French town of Chamonix to Switzerland – a distance of 100 miles over the Alps.

While the flight was extraordinary for being the first aerial crossing of the central Alps from west to east, it now holds a special significance of which Spelterini was unaware. The balloonist was also a photographer who captured a series of glass-plate images of the Mer de Glace (“sea of ice”) glacier that descends from the Mont Blanc Massif in a dramatic sweep.

Spelterini’s interest in recording the alpine landscape was both scientific and aesthetic, and the results are striking. This collection of images survives today as a record of the glacier that is unique in its detail and antiquity.

But crucially, they can be used to measure how much this landscape has changed in the intervening years. In 1909, no one could have guessed how significant these glaciers would become to environmental science, or just how rapidly they would be affected by rising temperatures in the century that followed.

Digital analysis

The flight over the Mer de Glace was unusual because Spelterini’s aerial photographs rarely focused on the glaciers, instead more often framing the peaks and other geological features. He was also unaware that the distribution of his photographs along the balloon’s flight path, pictured below, would make excellent material for digital analysis more than 100 years later.

The flight path of Eduard Spelterini’s balloon in 1909. Image: author provided.

By identifying common features in the photographs, which can in turn be linked to surveyed features in the landscape, a 3D representation of both the balloon flight and the historical topography can be reconstructed using photogrammetry – the science of taking measurements from photography. While the oblique angle of the photographs limits the measurable accuracy of the resulting data, compared to the vertical mapping photographs taken in the decades that followed, they still provide a unique and compelling glimpse into a past landscape.

In Spelterini’s image below, the oblique aerial view taken at a sideways angle towards the horizon gives a sense of place that is part way between the familiar ground level view and the high vertical perspective like that of a map. In the foreground the newly completed Montenvers cogwheel railway is visible, perched over the voluminous Mer de Glace glacier which leads the eye to the spires of the Mont Blanc Massif in the background.

The Montenverscog railway in the foreground was recently completed when Spelterini took this photograph. Image: Eduard Spelterini/author provided.

The photographs are carefully composed, designed to serve as both record and artwork. Their oblique angle makes them less abstracted and more relatable, despite their height above the ground and the scale of the landscape they depict. All of these factors make them an ideal point of reference for visualising the changing nature of the alpine landscape.

Follow that balloon

In October 2017, a team of photographers and researchers from the University of Dundee returned to Chamonix to replicate the path of the historic flight and recreate the sequence of photographs using a helicopter. Spelterini’s balloon rapidly ascended to around 2,000m above the Chamonix valley before passing Mer de Glace. Such heights are virtually inaccessible to unmanned drones, meaning that a manned aircraft was needed.

The results are documented in The 100-year Time-Lapse Project. GPS coordinates derived digitally from Spelterini’s photographs were used to return to the same locations to capture current-day equivalents of both his individual photographs and the 3D surface reconstruction. While the rate of change in the Mer de Glace glacier has been studied in great detail, using digital technology in this way allows for a visual comparison of the landscape then and now to reveal the staggering reduction in the ice surface that has taken place over the last century.

Credit: Kieran Baxter and Kieran Duncan/YouTube.

Today, visitors alighting at the Montenvers railway station are no longer confronted with the Mer de Glace at close range, but instead look down upon a largely empty valley and debris-covered glacier far below. Here the ice surface has dropped around 100 metres compared to its height in 1909. Scientists have calculated that, overall, the glacier has lost around 700m cubic metres of water since the beginning of the 20th century.

While the facts and figures alone should be enough to narrate the impact that the previous century of greenhouse gas emissions have had on our climate and environment, images like these help drive the point home. Eduard Spelterini was not just a pioneer of aviation but also of aerial photography as a way of better understanding the natural world. His images capture an emotive sense of place while providing insights into aspects of the landscape that are not available from the ground.

Credit: Kieran Baxter/YouTube.

Today, despite the heavy carbon footprint that comes with manned aviation, we continue to rely on aerial views to interpret our environment, from Landsat satellite imagery to low-level drone photography. By repurposing archival aerial photographs and continuing the legacy of photographers like Spelterini, with the help of current technology, we can explore new and compelling ways to visualise our rapidly changing glacial landscapes.

The ConversationAs well as serving to convince hearts and minds in the present political debates surrounding climate change, these images will also form a poignant record of magnificent landscapes that will no longer be around for future generations to experience.

Kieran Baxter, Research assistant, 3DVisLab, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.