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Project Pressure: Photography in the name of science

  • Project Pressure’s photographic records of glaciers will help to monitor future erosion. Image © Corey Arnold

    Project Pressure’s photographic records of glaciers will help to monitor future erosion. Image © Corey Arnold

  • Photographer Corey Arnold spent three weeks in the Svalbard archipelago for Project Pressure. Image © Corey Arnold

    Photographer Corey Arnold spent three weeks in the Svalbard archipelago for Project Pressure. Image © Corey Arnold

The brainchild of Klaus Thymann, Project Pressure is a collaborative photographic and scientific project charting the effects of climate change on glaciers around the world, finds Olivier Laurent

“Climate change is the biggest problem of our time, without any doubt,” says Danish born photographer Klaus Thymann. For the past five years he has been working on Project Pressure, a collaborative effort between photographers and scientists to record the more than 300,000 glaciers that exist around the world and their rapid disappearance.

Shooting for magazines such as National Geographic and Wired, Thymann turned artistic director when he first came up with the concept for Project Pressure: “It was my initiative, but I didn’t want to take control of it; I didn’t want to be in charge.” Instead, he brought together a group of lecturers, NGO specialists and financiers to form a board of directors. “I wanted Project Pressure to be democratic, with lots of different input,” he says. “We registered the organisation as a charity in the UK and since then we’ve been partnering with scientific organisations around the world.”

The goal behind Project Pressure is to create an archive of free-to-use images that will help scientists, researchers, educators and local communities study and communicate about the vanishing nature of the world’s glaciers.

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“I wanted to generate a project that could work to study climate change, but also that would have an impact beyond being just a series of beautiful and exciting pictures to look at,” says Thymann, “so I started contacting scientific organisations and institutions to ask them whether they would be interested in participating.”

The response has been impressive, he says, with the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) jumping on board from the start. “They suggested that it would be incredibly valuable for science to have ‘repeat photographs’ of glaciers that could be used to calculate mass balances.” These are images shot at different times at the same location, allowing scientists to gauge whether a particular glacier is expanding or, most likely, receding.

What particularly attracted organisations such as WGMS was the fact that Project Pressure had been conceived “within a software vocabulary as opposed to a photographic vocabulary”, says Thymann, “in the sense that all contributors to the project agreed that their images would become open source – that they would offer a royalty-free licence for their images to be used by anyone for non-commercial purposes in scientific research, for education or art purposes.” Of course, he adds, the photographers retain their copyright and the rights to commercially exploit their images: “We tried to combine both worlds.”

The initiative has generated a lot of interest from scientific organisations, with NASA coming on board by supplying satellite images. “We think it’s important to show the bigger picture, and satellite images are very good for that,” says Thymann. “Also, NASA has very clever glaciologists, who are helping us.”

Project Pressure has also developed partnerships with private firms, with Phase One lending cameras and lenses, Polaroid Sunglasses funding some of the team’s expeditions, and Rab equipping the photographers with clothing designed “for the most extreme conditions in the world”.

Since 2008, Project Pressure has sent photographers to 13 countries (Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Spain, the US, Nepal, Switzerland, New Zealand, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo) to create a database of geo-tagged images of glaciers. It plans to complete this initial photographic survey with further trips to Sweden, Bolivia, Colombia, Canada, Russia, Kenya and Papua New Guinea.

Unbeaten Path

One of the project’s photographers is Corey Arnold, who came back last month from a three-week trip to Svalbard, Norway. “Last year I funded my own trip to do a project on a Norwegian whaling boat,” says Arnold, who met Thymann through a mutual friend. Klaus found out that I was there and asked if I could do some research on Svalbard [a Norwegian archipelago that is largely covered by glaciers]. Next thing I knew, he was able to get some funding from the Lighthouse Foundation, a German charity that supports integrated and long-term approaches in the relationship between humans and the marine environment within the context of sustainable development.

“The idea was to photograph a lot of these glaciers from the sea,” says Arnold. “I thought it would be great to put together a unique adventure and not follow the usual tourist paths. I was trying to figure out how to do it since it’s very expensive to go there, so I did some research and found that there was a Polish research station down there.”

Established in 1957, the Polish Polar Station on Svalbard runs geological, meteorological and biological studies all year round and has become a base for many scientists in the region. “I emailed the station to tell them what I was thinking about doing, and I had an immediate response from the team leader,” says Arnold. “They wanted to help me and invited me to come. I showed up on 08 September, when most of the scientists were leaving, so there was plenty of room for me – I stayed more than two weeks.”

What first attracted Arnold to Project Pressure was a very personal experience he had when he was 11. “When I first went to Alaska as a little kid, I remember seeing a glacier. It was the first time I had seen one in my life and I remember walking up to it and being totally dumbfounded by its size. The glacier was right next to a parking lot but, 20 years later in 2010, when I revisited that same glacier, I noticed that it was no longer visible from the parking lot. In fact, a new road and a new parking lot had been built two miles further up where the glacier now stood. It had receded so much that it made it really obvious that things are changing quite rapidly. And that’s why I think Project Pressure is a great idea. It is showing people how these glaciers are changing over time.”

Mass Collaboration

While a small number of photographers embarking on an ambitious documentation project might not seem, at first, especially attractive to organisations such as the WGMS, there is an aspect of Project Pressure that may become invaluable. “There are about 300,000 glaciers in the world, most of which are not being monitored,” says Thymann. “There’s a data gap, especially in the Himalayas. That’s where Project Pressure’s collaborative element comes into play. We’ve set up a system where we record GPS co-ordinates and compass directions on the expeditions we’ve done so that the images we’ve shot can be replicated by anyone in future expeditions.”

Called MELT (Mass Engagement Listing Technology), the online platform will allow anyone in the world to submit their own images and geographical co-ordinates to create a massive, ever-evolving database of photographs for scientists. “We’re crowdsourcing a glacier archive,” says Thymann. “And it will be interesting to see what happens in the future because glaciers are changing. They are disappearing very quickly. The world’s highest ski slope, Chaltacaya in Bolivia, closed five years ago. The boundaries between Italy and Switzerland are being redrawn because glaciers are moving all the time. With MELT, if scientists want images to study this phenomenon, they will be able to find them. It’s a straightforward and intuitive platform.”

While most of the expeditions have been funded already, Thymann and his board of directors are still looking to raise funds for the final version of the platform. “To be honest, it’s quite expensive to build,” he says. “But the aim is to have it ready either by the end of 2014 or at the beginning of 2015. In glacier terms, it’s just around the corner. We started financing the project half a year before the financial crisis hit. Despite that, we have had a good success rate achieving our short- term funding goals. And I think that now the project is quite tangible, it has been attracting more interest. We’re planning to bring people in as founding members in return for a $500 contribution. These people will become our ambassadors.”

The project has also received unexpected exposure from Instagram after Arnold used the image-sharing social network to document his time at the Polish Polar Station. “We had this great internet connection at the station,” he says. “I was going on very long day trips with a lot of equipment, but we also had many days of bad weather, so that gave me time to edit my images while I was still at the station and to show them on a daily basis on Instagram.”

The response he received was amazing. “Usually when I’m on these adventures, I’m off the grid. I don’t have time to sort through my images. This time I did, and immediately my follower numbers started going up and the reactions were crazy. People were living this trip through my images.”

Arnold’s images caught the attention of Instagram’s communications team, which ran an interview with the photographer. “In a single day, I had 9000 new followers. It made it really apparent that the public is fascinated by the Arctic and these remote adventures. It was a great way to get the word out about Project Pressure.”

Now Project Pressure is planning new trips for 2014 with photographers such as Simon Norfolk taking part, which, Thymann hopes, will bring even greater awareness to the issue of climate change. “It’s such a grand issue and tracking what’s happening now will help science in the future.”