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Photo Project Tracks Climate Change On Everest

Dec 17, 2012
Originally published on December 20, 2012 1:18 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Mount Everest is a symbol of excellence and of danger. The world's highest peak means success to mountaineers. And it's also, according to filmmaker David Breashears, a canary in the coalmine of climate change. Breashears has just returned from a trip to Nepal where he's been gathering extraordinary images of Everest's retreating glaciers.

I talked with him about one huge and majestic image taken this spring. It's posted on his GlacierWorks website. Compare earlier pictures taken decades back with this image, and you can see how the snow and ice have disappeared in the past 100 years.

DAVID BREASHEARS: It's, I think, almost 400 images taken with a 300-millimeter lens that are then stitched together. When you view them in the browser, allowing you that deep zoom capability.

BLOCK: Yeah, and it's a panoramic image. You can scan from right to left and get this amazing sweep of the Himalaya.

BREASHEARS: Yeah, it's just extraordinary and we're so excited by that image. I have myself climbed Everest five times and been to the mountain 15 times. And when I'm breathless at almost 18 or 19,000 feet recording these images, I have very little time to study the mountain and learn about it. And, of course, I can't focus my eyes as closely as that lens can.

So, as I sit there and examine that image and all its beauty and glory, I find things that I've never noticed before, especially as they relate to how climate change is affecting the mountain.

BLOCK: And we're talking about a gigapixel image. A gigapixel being...

BREASHEARS: A billion pixels. So I think this image has two or three billion pixels.

BLOCK: Well, this is what's amazing because I'm zooming in on this image and I keep zooming in closer and closer and closer. I feel like I'm practically inside the glacier itself. And you can see just incredible detail. It doesn't get blurry. It doesn't get out of the focus. You can see climbers - they look like tiny little specks but you can see their form climbing up this glacier.

BREASHEARS: Yeah, we can see climbers several miles away on the Lhotse face. Lhotse itself is over 28,000 feet high. And several thousand feet below its summit is Camp 3. And if you zoom in there, you can see not only the tents, but the little climbers - well, they're little in the picture - making their way up to camp and to the higher camp.

BLOCK: When you compare the images that you're shooting now of Mount Everest with images shot back in the '50s, as far back as the 1920s, do you also see simply just more exposed rock that the images that you're seeing from the Himalayas now? Or just that there's less white, it's more ground?

BREASHEARS: Yes, we see a lot less ice. We see a less snow cover. We see much more exposed rock in nearly all of the places we visited. In some regions in the west, a few of the glaciers are actually quite stable. But there are over 49,000 glaciers throughout the greater Himalayan region, and most of them are showing dramatic and accelerated melt rate.

BLOCK: I wonder if there is some risk in making these pictures, these images that makes the mountain seemed so approachable. You're zooming right in. It's like you're there and you almost think, you know, I could do that. I could go climb that.

BREASHEARS: You know, I often think about how the images that I've brought back from the years from Mount Everest, including the first live broadcast in 1983 to the "Everest" IMAX film and now this gigapixel imagery, I've often thought if that just makes the mountain seemed too accessible to people.

BLOCK: Yeah.

BREASHEARS: And I have realized that's the call of that mountain, the iconic presence it has in our lives, and the sense of achievement it provides people with, and the sense of kudos and the feather-in-the-cap reward you get when you return home, that that is the draw of that mountain. I can't make that mountain any more compelling than the fact that it's 29,028 feet high, the highest point on our planet. And if that isn't a calling card, I don't know what is.

BLOCK: David Breashears, thanks very much.

BREASHEARS: You're welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.

BLOCK: David Breashears is the founder of GlacierWorks, which is working to match historical photographs to show how the Himalayan landscape has changed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.