Historic Glacial Images of Alaska and Greenland

Investigator: Matt Pritchard, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Aaron Sachs, History; and Julie Elliott, Purdue University

Arts & Sciences, 2014

Enhancing our understanding of glacier behavior and how it relates to climate change requires long time series of observations to establish glacier evolution over many decades. In support of this goal, this project aims to create a digital library of historic images of glaciers in Alaska and Greenland from Cornell’s R. S. Tarr and O. D. von Engeln collections. Tarr, a former professor of geology and geography at Cornell, and von Engeln, a student and later professor of geology at Cornell, conducted several field expeditions to Alaska in the early 20th century and used pioneering photographic techniques to document their findings. During a recent campus visit, Alaskan historical glacier photography expert Bruce Molnia of the US Geological Survey stated that the R. S. Tarr collection is the photographic collection most likely to reveal important new observations of glacier change over the past 100 years in Alaska because it has been so little studied. Thus, the images are of scientific interest for understanding glacier dynamics, of public policy interest for documenting climate change, and of artistic interest as the images could be put on public display.

A number of researchers from institutions around the country have expressed great interest in using the images in their work, and the new collection will support teaching and learning activities in various fields not limited to environmental history, climate change, and visual culture. For example, Sachs often uses historical photographs in his lecture courses to help students become more fluent in reading and analyzing the visual culture in which they’re steeped, and also to help them get in touch with the texture of the past. One goal of this project is to determine the precise location of the glacier photographs and use them to construct a three dimensional model. Another scientific objective is to quantify the retreat and advance of the individual glaciers to better understand the relative effects of regional climate change and the complex response of the glaciers. This goal is well aligned with the existing research program of Elliott and Pritchard who use GPS and remote sensing observations to quantify glacier change in Alaska. As an outreach activity, there are plans for an exhibit in Fall 2014 using photos from the test scans to celebrate the centennial of the 1914 Alaskan Glacier Studies book by Tarr and Lawrence Martin.

Historic Glacial Images of Alaska and Greenland

Images of Glaciers From C.U. Expeditions on Display (Cornell Daily Sun)