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.


 

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.