Striking images of various glaciers taken during Cornell expeditions to Greenland and Alaska from 1896 to 1911 have recently been digitized through a $40,000 arts college grant and are on display in the Mann Library gallery until early next year.
The images in the exhibition, “Historic Ice: Alaska and Greenland’s Glaciers Through the Lens of the Cornell Expeditions 1896-1911,” were selected from a collection of over 2,000 photos from expeditions led by renowned geologist Prof. Ralph Stockman Tarr, dynamic geology and physical geography.
Most of the photos, which will be on display until Jan. 31 next year, have not been seen in over 100 years, according to Prof. Matthew Pritchard, earth and atmospheric sciences.
In addition to the photos from the expeditions that feature the glaciers and trip members, Cornell Archives also possesses some of the equipment used in the trips, with one of the cameras from the trip on display in the exhibit, according to Pritchard.
While some of the photos have been around until 1906, the collection was only recently stumbled upon in the earth and atmospheric sciences department, Pritchard said.
“There was a professor cleaning out his office in our department, and he had this box of glass slides from 1906 taken by Tarr and [Prof. Oscar Diedrich] van Engeln 1888, [physical geography],” Pritchard said. “We got really interested in how many more pictures of this there were, and that led us down the path.”
Once the entire collection was discovered, Pritchard contacted Prof. Aaron Sachs, history, to help create a proposal in order to receive funding from the Grant Program for Digital Collections in Arts and Sciences, Sachs said.
“My angle on it is that climate change is actually a historical problem as well as a scientific problem,” Sachs said. “These kinds of photographs can be really useful for my field of environmental history to give a baseline of how these glaciers have changed over the last 100 years.”
To officially open the exhibit on Nov. 10, Prichard gave a lecture about the history of Tarr’s expeditions in Greenland and Alaska and spoke about the glaciers specifically featured in the exhibit.
“Some of these glaciers are retreating, just like the majority of glaciers in Alaska,” Pritchard said. Some are static, and there are very few glaciers that get undo attention that are advancing like Hubbard Glacier, but also have societal importance.”
In addition to Hubbard Glacier, the exhibit focuses on pictures of the Nunatak Glacier and the Columbia Glacier.
During his expeditions, Tarr had a variety of undergraduate and graduate students work with him. Van Engeln, who also completed Cornell undergraduate and graduate degrees, accompanied them and took many of the photos which are featured in the exhibit. Many of the cameras used had a panoramic ability with a spring activated system, allowing for the wide pictures seen in the exhibit. During the expedition, a dark room tent was used in order to develop the pictures, according to Pritchard.
The pictures taken from the trip and held in the collection included glass slides, film negatives and prints, Pritchard said. All of these were processed with the funding in order to upload them online, making them accessible to the public.
“They have a facility over at Olin Library,” Pritchard said. “They do this now routinely where they have the grants to decide what are the highest priority to digitize. They did all the digitizing from the expeditions.”
Once the photos were discovered, Eveline Ferretti, public programs and communication administrator, Jenny Leijonhufvd, public outreach specialist and Liz Brown, gallery and exhibits coordinator, helped create the exhibit to display the photos.
“The idea for an exhibit related to Prof. Pritchard’s work with historic glacier photos emerged from Mann’s plan to host a special year of programming around the issue of climate change,” Ferretti, Leijonhufvd and Brown said.
The three reached out to Pritchard and began working with him in order to develop the exhibit that related to the theme of Mann’s special programming over the past months.
“The aim of the exhibit is to show both the amazing adventure of those early Cornell expeditions, as well as their scientific contribution to our understanding of glaciers today,” they said. “Viewers of these often haunting large-scale images may feel themselves transported to the ice and winds of Alaska and Greenland around the turn of the last century, but they may also witness the striking changes most of these areas have undergone in the last 100 years.”
In order see the changes that have taken place in the century since the photos from Tarr’s expeditions took place, the exhibit also displays recent photos. These photos, taken by Prof. Julie Elliot, earth, atmospheric and planetary science, Purdue University, depict the same glaciers that Tarr journeyed to with his students, and are featured side by side with Von Engeln’s in the display.
“One of the long term goals of the project is to figure out where the pictures were taken originally,” Pritchard said. “We’re trying to compare what it looks like then to what it looks like now. Julie’s goal is to go back on a trip to the spot where the original picture was from and take a new picture of it.”
Further analysis of these photos and the glaciers in them will continue even after the exhibit ends in January 2016.
“The long term goal is to figure out what information we can extract from the pictures that provides new insight,” Pritchard said. “We already know that most of the glaciers are retreating, but the scientific interest is that not all of them are retreating in the exact same way. Some of them are advancing. We’re trying to understand the mechanics of how that happens. Understanding the mechanics is important to make predictions about future glacier behavior and the rate of sea level rise.”