"Vanishing World" - Foreword
This entire planet depends on ice. The Earth's temperature, both in the air and in the ocean; the sea levels, rivers, lakes, and streams, all rely on the glaciers that feed them. In a National Geographic survey, we discovered that only 2 percent of all the water on Earth is freshwater. Half of that is contained in glaciers. Because of climate change, in just the last 30 years, glaciers have been vanishing from the planet at an exponential rate. Many places are already losing their flowing water. It's predicted that the Ganges river in India, that flows down from the glaciers in the Himalayas, will become only a seasonal river within this decade and will cease to flow entirely in just the next 30 years.
For the first time in modern history, Iceland completely lost one of its glaciers last year, Okjökull. As Iceland continues to lose over 11 billion tons of ice each year now, many more are expected to follow.
Last year, Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice just in a single day, an unprecedented event but unfortunately something that will soon become the norm as global temperatures continue to rise. As glaciers disappear it is not only affecting the ecosystems directly surrounding them, but it is also throwing other ecosystems out of balance and causing animals, plants, and insects all over the planet to go extinct. Warming sea temperatures are destroying entire areas of coral reef, ruining the food supply that thousands of fish and other sea creatures depend on. Rising sea levels are causing coastlines to collapse and are drowning entire islands in the Caribbean. Dozens of islands in one of my favorite places, the San Blas Islands in Panama, have gone completely underwater in the last decade.
The effects of global warming can best be seen by observing glaciers. I visited Iceland for the first time in 2014. A year later I returned, hoping to enjoy the same magnificent landscape of fire and ice. I was surprised how noticeably the glaciers had receded and how fewer icebergs were floating in the lagoons. During my last visit, 3 years later, the effects of climate change were shocking to say the least.
One of my favorite places from prior visits had been the famous glacier lagoon, Jökulsárlón, where pieces of ice break off from the nearby glacier and float out to the sea through a small channel where they then wash up on the shore and are battered by strong waves. It was a surreal experience walking through a crystalline maze of shipwrecked icebergs ranging from the size of a baseball to a semi truck. I was excited to return and so we drove straight there at the beginning of our trip, in hopes to shoot many photographs of the beautiful blue, diamond like chunks of ice along the black, sandy beach. When we arrived, I was completely blown away to find there was not a single piece of ice along the entire coastline nor even the slightest evidence that there ever was. It took several visits during our trip and careful timing with the tides in order to find any pieces of ice on the beach at all.
In just the next 35 years, it's expected that the majority of the Earth's glaciers will be gone. This will bring with it catastrophic events that the human race has never experienced before. If all of the ice in Antarctica, Greenland, and mountain glaciers were to melt, the sea levels would rise 230 feet (70 meters). The ocean would cover all of the coastal cities and the landmass of continents and islands all over the planet would shrink significantly. One can only imagine the kind of chaos and destruction that could bring all over the globe.
As the Earth continues to warm from all of the carbon trapped in the atmosphere, more and more ice is melting. The permafrost of the Arctic is considered a "sleeping giant" of greenhouse gases and could release more than 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide once it all thaws, worsening our heat problem even more. It is suspected that ice and permafrost have preserved deadly bacteria and viruses like the bubonic plague, smallpox, and the spanish flu. As more ice melts, these will once again be released into the air. There has already been a case of Anthrax that was freed from thawed permafrost that caused deaths and illness in both animals and humans. Who knows what kinds of other health threats will surface in the upcoming decades that we have no prior experience with.
After the disappearing of the Okjökull glacier, Icelanders created a plaque with an eerie and ominous message for future generations. It reads:
"In the next 200 years all of our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it."
I feel extremely lucky to live in a time where one can still experience the incredible beauty of enormous icebergs and glaciers. It worries me to know that we are headed down a path that means one day glaciers may no longer be a part of the human experience, only able to be seen in photographs like these. In my photography I continually seek to convey the value of our natural world. If the rest of humanity fails to see it, I hope you will know that I have at least tried.