Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, several years ago turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on an ambitious new book project, called Planet Ice, Martin the past three years has blogged exclusively for GreatOutdoors.com as he traveled to the ends of the Earth, from Anarctica to Mount Everest--the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains--to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. Now, with the release of the long-awaited book, Planet Ice, Martin reflects on the scope of the project, and his motivations for doing it.
I became addicted to wilderness travel a young age. While still in high school I organized the 275-mile hike through the Sierra. In my early 20s I took up climbing and spent months in the Canadian Rockies and in the Pacific Northwest ascending glaciated peaks. I graduated to frozen waterfall climbing, and made it up some of the classic North Faces.
In 1975 I prepared for climbing the North face of Mount Athabasca by climbing out of crevasses in the Athabasca glacier. When I returned more than 20 years later, all the ice was gone. In fact, the glacier had receded so far that I could no longer see the toe. At this moment the reality of climate change hit me hard and personally. I resolved to take an inventory of ice around the world, to capture its beauty and demonstrate to all the climate change was having dramatic effects on the landscape.
I traveled from Greenland to Antarctica, the Himalaya to the Andes. I hiked to Everest Base Camp and summit of Kilimanjaro, walked across the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda, soloed over the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, wandered in Alaska, revisited the Alps, and circled Iceland.
These trips resulted in Planet Ice
(Braided River), my one-man ice survey, a unified vision of the status of ice on Earth. At first I envisioned a color version of a book I admired, Glacier Ice
by LaChappelle and Post, but the importance of climate change and the role of ice as the canary in the coal mine shifted my emphasis. Planet Ice still covers how ice shapes the landscape, but now much of the text and images concern ice in retreat, how ice affects climate and is affected by climate.
I started traveling in February 2006 and completed shooting in September 2008. At the same time I solicited scientists, climbers, and writers for essays. Ian Stirling, the doyen of seal and polar bear researches, signed on first. The ice core researcher Dr. Richard Alley, a principal contributor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agreed to contribute as well as Dr. Gino Casassa, a prominent Chilean glaciologist. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and a celebrated ice climber, added an account of his adventures with ice and his sense of loss at its disappearance. Broughton Colburn and Nick Jans showed how native peoples live amid ice while Gretel Ehrlich crafted a personal essay the impact of ice on the human spirit.
I love South Georgia where two mile high mountains bracket massive tidal glaciers and where the northern beaches can be covered by king penguins and elephant seals. It’s like the Serengeti if nothing would eat you. But for this project, Ilulissat in Greenland and the Ruwenzori Range surprised me the most, and that was a treat.
The Ilulissat Ice Fjord is a 25 mile long channel filled with icebergs discharged by the Jakobshavn Glacier, the fastest moving glacier in the world, flowing 35 meters per day. Some of the icebergs are more than 3000 feet high. The larger ones get stuck in the shallowest part of the channel, especially where and moraine blocks the passage to the sea. Sometimes they remain stuck for years until they melt enough to break free and float away. The glacier discharges 20,000,000,000 tons of ice each year, more than any glacier outside Antarctica.
The Ruwenzori Range, also known as the Mountains of the Moon, rise on the border of Uganda and Congo. The highest peak is 16,700 feet high, and when they were first client early in the 20th century, glaciers blanketed the top 2000 feet. The glacial recession here is faster than I've seen elsewhere, and in a few years all the ice will disappear. This was my toughest hike. We spent days hiking through bogs, balancing on saplings lest we fall into knee-deep mud and water. The forests are dripping with moss, and houseplants suitable for a windowsill in the United States grow to 15 feet in the intense equatorial sunlight.
I hope the book is just the first step. I would like to write a children's version of Planet Ice and create a website where kids can ask questions, download pictures, and read about the wild places in the world. Ideally, the website would become a resource for science teachers. Whether or not this happens will depend on donations to Braided River.
It is rare that the will change the world. I don't expect that, I hope the Planet Ice will nudge public opinion, solidify and strengthen our resolve to protect the planet as best we can both for the good of humanity and the preservation of beauty.