“No one was there,” the man marveled. “The air is almost empty.”
This is Garrett Fisher’s playground – and, you quickly realize, his life’s work.
He’s traveling the world, looking at it from above, sitting in his tiny blue and white “Super Cub” plane. It was here that he combined his two longtime passions — photography and flying — in his quest to document every remaining glacier on the Earth’s surface.
To some extent, Fisher, 41, does it for one simple reason: “Because I love them.”
But he also does it for heavier things. Because the climate clock is ticking and the glaciers on the planet are melting. Because Fisher believes that recording, storing, memorizing all of this has a purpose.
Because, in the end, nothing lasts forever – not even ancient glaciers.
Glaciers are not static. In a world that is getting warmer, they are getting smaller and smaller.
“In 100 or 200 years, most of them will be gone or severely cut down,” says Fisher. “It’s the front line of climate change… the first sign that we’re missing something.”
Follow to data from the European Environment Agency, for example, the Alps have lost about half their volume since 1900, with the most obvious increase in melting occurring since the 1980s. And the retreat of ice River expected continue in the future.
Estimates from the EEA say that by 2100, the volume of glaciers in Europe will continue to decline by 22% to 84% – and that is under a moderate scenario. The more aggressive model suggests a loss of up to 89%.
“We have a record of observing small glaciers in settled areas, particularly in the Alps, Norway and New Zealand. That record shows that glaciers are retreating more, he said. “It’s a consequence of climate change.”
Of course, the slow demise of glaciers is a matter of transcending aesthetics or even the glaciers themselves. The global sea level rise of about 15 cm over the past century is largely due to melting ice.
Which setting the clock ticks to run. And that prompted Garrett Fisher to take action.
For Fisher, it began – as much has happened to so many people – from childhood.
He grew up in a quiet rural community in upstate New York, the son of a local business owner and the grandson of a sly pilot who soon introduced him to aviation. He lives next to a private airport.
Fisher was just a toddler when Grandpa Gordon placed him in the back of the plane. The boy wasn’t happy about it, but the disappointment quickly turned to joy. By the age of 4, he was caught up in flight.
Fisher recalled staring out of his bedroom window for hours, waiting for the door to his grandfather’s hangar to open. The older man will say to him, “Whatever you decide, you can do it.”
Then, when he was young, he started taking pictures. Two out of three parts of his obsession have been laid.
Around the late 1990s, a friend told Fisher that the world’s glaciers were disappearing. It has haunted him ever since, so much so that it added to the third piece of the triangle: the urgency to beat the clock.
He sees them disappear, and he wants to make sure that these pieces of the world – pieces that he finds indescribably beautiful – are preserved, even in pixels.
“When I was high up, I saw these forbidden views,” he said. “Those are the views you can’t have on the ground, that don’t really exist for anyone else.”
He directed his efforts directly to posterity. He believes that any documentation he creates about glaciers before they collapse could be invaluable to future generations. So he came up with a glacier initiativea nonprofit to support and showcase his work, and he plans to open his archives to the public for study — some now, others when he dies.
Fisher is hardly the first to feel the archiving instinct when it comes to glaciers. Since the invention of photography in the early decades of the 19th century, glaciers have been captured with the fascination of everyone from tourists to scientists.
Norwegian photographer Knud Knudsen, one of his nation’s founding art photographers, has delved into the landscape with an obsession similar to Fisher’s. He went around the west coast of Norway, to take a photo nature: fjords, mountains, waterfalls… and glaciers.
But in an age when everything to do with photography was heavy, cumbersome, and slow, Knudsen walked the earth, traveling in carriages and boats. On one trip, he brought around 175 pounds of equipment — including negatives. Unlike Fisher, he couldn’t soar – and couldn’t capture the feeling of looking down at the vast and magnificent natural formations he was documenting in his homeland.
For Fisher, Norway is just the latest glacier frontier. He spent years documenting them in other places, including the American West, before shifting his focus to the Alps and Europe. He has photographed thousands of glaciers and aspires to more.
Yet never before, even amid the silence and beauty of his flights, did Fisher lose his sense of recording the “decisive moment” – the inflection points of a glacier are still here but is in the process of disappearing.
He knows, with every flight, that he is recording a slow-moving tragedy as it unfolds.
The Piper Super Cub is a small two-seater. Fisher interjected. He prepares to fly into the crystal and cotton sky in hopes of capturing Nigardsbreen photos.
“There’s about a 30 percent chance we’ll see the glacier,” he said. “There was a cloud sitting right there.”
Piper felt – and rattled – like an old car. It smells of oil and fuel and everything is handmade. Fisher brought his iPad with him for navigation, but his aviation software had no GPS information about the glacier. So he flies using a combination of instinct, observation, and Google Maps.
The plane’s huge glass windows offer great views. When he’s aloft, the houses start to look like Monopoly pieces. Anxiety dissipates into moments of profound peace. It’s as if the altitude – the distance from the world as we know it – makes all that is happening on the planet below seem a little more manageable. However, he knew: One wrong move would end all of this.
“The weather was bad, it was extremely cold, the wind was very strong and the flight technique was extremely difficult,” Fisher said. “And to photograph the glacier, we are getting very close to all this action. So it requires a lot of skill, time and determination.”
A lot of people are afraid of flying, especially on small planes. When there is news of a plane crash, it is usually a small plane.
He added: “Many pilots have told me I’m crazy.”
Many glaciers are remote and difficult to access or document – except via satellite or by air, making the tiny Super Cub the perfect vehicle for this photographic journey. It was built to navigate the strong winds and hazardous environments required for his job.
Why take the risk? Fisher believes that satellite imagery will never capture the glacier effectively – neither aesthetically nor scientifically. Glacier light at “magic hour”. The way the shadow casts over the ice, revealing an endless, unidentifiable blue. The sheer magnificence of these ice giants is always in a state of disrepair.
Will the engine exit? He has a blueprint in the event of a glacier collision. He calculated he could survive for about 24 hours if he went down and measured the tail of the plane to make sure he could fit it and stay out of the elements while he waited for help. Not for the faint of heart.
Fisher travels many places: United States, Spain, Norway. He rarely stops. His wife, Anne, his childhood friend, dragged him to bed most nights; If he left his devices alone, he said, he would have trouble sleeping. This is what happens to people who believe in one thing so much that everything else starts to fall apart.
Until now, Fisher has paid for his passion with his own money, but it hasn’t come cheap; he is running out of funds and is looking for supporters.
He positioned the work carefully. In many ways, it is science. In other words, it is a public service. But he always comes back to one thing: beauty.
“Science has all the data we need. They have a lot of data sets that will be available in the future,” Fisher said. “The problem is, it’s not pretty.”
What he does, he says, is aesthetically pleasing things that can encourage people to change their ways.
“It’s not a dataset,” he added. It’s a dynamic, emotionally engaging rendition of these glaciers while they’re here. Because these views will not come back.”
Glaciers are a window into our past. Photography, too, is a window into our past. Garrett Fisher has combined these pursuits to ensure there are multiple perspectives to this point – and that whatever disappears will be remembered.
In the end, a lot of his work is about memory. But what about here and now? Can a photograph convey the profound experience of standing in front of something that is about to be lost forever? In many ways, that’s what his work is trying to figure out.
The archive is something he has put all his heart into, devoted countless hours to. And beyond storied dreams, he dares to hope for change.
If he finds the right light, the right angle, the right time, maybe people will be more interested. He’s chasing the perfect image; beautiful enough to make people and policymakers take action. And if it’s not an image, it could be an entire archive that convinces people to come, look, come close, pay attention.
“We can live without them. We would live without them,” Fisher said. “However, it is heartbreaking to lose them.”
Everything disappeared. But it’s not over. There’s still time, and Garrett Fisher has a plane and a camera and won’t turn away.
Associated Press journalist Bram Janssen reports from Voss.