‘Then and Now’ uses repeat photography to tell the story of climate change in Alaska

McCall Glacier, 1973. McCall Glacier has thinned considerably since 1973. In addition, one cirque glacier, right, has shrunk while another, left, has disappeared completely.
Dennis Trabant | Special to the Daily |

If you go …

What: “Then & Now: The Changing Artic Landscape.”

When: Monday, May 2, through Sunday, July 10.

Where: Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Education Center, Ford Park, 530 South Frontage Road E., Vail.

Cost: Free; $5 suggested donation.

More information: Call 970-476-0103, or visit

VAIL — Changes to the ecosystem as a result of the effects of global warming over time can be difficult to see with the naked eye. “Then & Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape” is a multimedia exhibit that allows one to do just that.

The exhibit, sponsored by RA Nelson and the town of Vail, will be shown at the Betty Ford Alpine Garden’s newly completed Education Center from Monday through Sunday, July 10. Admission is free, with a $5 suggested donation, and the exhibit is open to all ages.

Created by Ken Tape, of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “Then & Now” is a visually striking exhibit that uses the process of repeat photography — in which historical photographs are contrasted with contemporary images taken from the exact same vantage point — to clearly illustrate the effects of global warming in Alaska’s Northern Slope and Brooks Range. Using this technique, visitors can witness the devastating effects of global warming on glaciers, alpine vegetation and even topography.

“The great thing about repeat photography is that it is open to interpretation,” Tape told the Fairbanks news outlet The News Miner. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to interpret the data. That’s the layer that’s removed with repeat photography. You might not understand why the changes are happening, but you can still see the outcome.”

With 15 pairs of repeat photographs, Tape is able to show varying levels of ecological damage. While one image might show that a glacier has completely disappeared over the years, another image might show no change at all.

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“There is a photo pair in the exhibit that hasn’t changed at all. That’s my favorite because the sense of timelessness still does exist in select locations. It shows you just how stable up there it can be,” he told The News Miner. But, “when you do see the changes you start thinking about what’s causing them.”

Interactive learning

The traveling exhibit, which includes openings at Amherst College, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and The Paleontological Research Institution, also includes interactive panoramas depicting how thawing permafrost can change the landscape and how researchers determine temperatures from thousands of years ago.

Using high-resolution imagery, this feature allows visitors to zoom in on any aspect of the landscape — even a single blade of grass — to provide an in-depth look at the fragile ecosystem. The interactive pictures are further enhanced with natural sounds, in-depth descriptions of the area and stories from Alaskan natives who detail how their culture is affected by the environmental degradation.

In order to delve deeper and bring a local perspective to the exhibit, the Gardens will host 30-year veteran climatologist Joe Ramey to speak on Thursday, June 16. Ramey studied climate patterns out of the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s Grand Junction office for the past 30 years. By tracking decades of data such as maximum and minimum temperatures, as well as levels of precipitation, Ramey is able to correlate historical trends and give perspective to the current climate debate.

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is Eagle County’s botanical garden. The Alpine Gardens focuses on understanding and conserving the mountain environment and shares this knowledge with guests and scientists throughout the world.

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