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  • Writer's pictureEd Sherline

Tracing A Life: About Mark Meier and his Wind River Glacier Photos

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Mark Meier in 1978 at the Grossaletsch-gletscher, Switzerland. Photo by Vladimir Kotlyakov.

Last revised: June 30, 2022

This blog is about the Wind River Glaciers, with an emphasis on their response to global warming. Much of my effort to understand and document this impact involves repeating the photographs of the glaciers done seventy years earlier by Mark F. Meier, so it's worth devoting a post to him and his photos.

Meier was born at the tail end of the "greatest generation," those who were shaped by the Great Depression and were of service age during WWII. He was a major glaciologist during the second half of the 20th century, a time when science established THE existential crisis of our planet, that human caused greenhouse gas emissions were causing global warming and climate change. He was among a handful of scientists to first sound the alarm: Due to glacier and polar ice cap melt, sea levels will significantly rise.

I found Mark Meier's photographs the same way many of us follow our curiosity these days, through a web search. It was a dull and lazy January, before the semester's teaching began, and I was struggling to come up with an interesting research proposal for a fellowship application. I wanted to work on something I cared about, something socially relevant, and something that involved photography. It wasn't hard to determine my topic. Nothing interested me more than the Wind Rivers, and how global warming is threatening their glaciers, and how, as a long-time traveler in the Winds I feel about this fact. I had already started a project of systematically visiting and photographing all the named glaciers in the Winds. I had seen several devastated glaciers, melted to nothing more than snowfields. I went searching for more information about the glaciers, especially early photographs that might lend themselves to a rephotography project. One of the search engine results hit pay dirt--Meier's 1951 master's thesis.

I knew nothing about Meier when I discovered his thesis, but quickly realized that I could use his photographs for a "before and after project." Not only were his photographs of high quality and available in a high resolution digital format, but the glaciology in his M.S. thesis was accessible (for the most) and provided an opportunity for me to learn more about the glaciers of the Winds, and whether Meier anticipated the devastating recession and thinning of these glaciers that we’re seeing. The thesis was impeccably written. It provided hints of his personality, and was historically resonant with connections to some major climbers of the time (Floyd Wilson, Fritiof Fryxell, Kenneth Henderson). He provided a systematic description and evaluation of each glacier studied, bestowed names on some of them that have become standard, produced lovely hand drawn maps, and photographs from 15 of the glaciers that surround Fremont and Gannett peaks. It was a window to an earlier way of doing glaciology, on the cusp of a revolution in the field that Mark helped to initiate, an earlier period in American mountaineering, and an earlier picture of the Winds.

Meier's thesis raised questions: Did he have any recognition of the indigenous presence in the Winds, that the Shoshone were there long before white people and had been forcibly relocated to the eastern edge of the range? How did he learn about the trails and passes in the Winds, before there was a readily available guidebook? How did he go about getting the photographs and measurements? What kind of camera and backpacking gear did he use in the immediate aftermath of WWII? Why did he pick the Winds? Was it standard for a student to do the kind of independent, extensive fieldwork for a thesis in glaciology? Did he notice a pattern of glacier retreat, retreat that might be an early response to global warming? A colleague of mine in the geology department, Neil Humphrey, confirmed that Meier was a major glaciologist, that his thesis was scientifically solid, that sending off glaciological students to do independent field research was and still is standard practice, and Humphrey put me in touch with another glaciologist who was a friend to and collaborator with Meier. Tad Pfeffer filled in the black box a bit more. For example, Meier was probably using WWII surplus gear for his expedition (we get confirmation of this with a photo of the tent he used), and was an important figure in modernizing techniques of glacier measurement, again using WWII technology. He was a lifelong painter. What ultimately fascinated me about Meier was his rigorous scientific mind combined with an artistic sensibility, and his presence at a defining time.

I have many reasons to retrace his paths in the Winds. Most obviously, I immediately and intensely wanted to rephotograph his photos. I also hoped to discover more about the Winds. Meier travelled through and photographed many glaciers that I had not yet visited, and probably noticed much that, where we had overlapped, I had walked by in obliviousness. Additionally, I wanted to discover more about his methods. Lastly, and this is the most intangible reason, I wanted to stand in person on the same viewpoints of the glaciers and experience them first hand.

A timeline of a past life is more an indicator of what the person putting the timeline together values than what might have been of greatest importance to that person. My timeline of Mark's life leaves out all of the personal dates that might have been of the greatest importance to him, such as when he was married, the birth dates of each of his three children, when they moved to new homes, when the children left home for college, when he met his best friends, etc.:

-1925. Born in Iowa on December 19.

-1943. Enlists in the Navy (probably soon after graduating from high school, when he was still 17, requiring his parents' consent), where he learns skills in electronics, including radar technology.

-1945. Discharged from the Navy and enrolls at the University of Iowa.

-1948. Makes his first trip to the Winds as part of the Iowa Mountaineers.

-1949. Graduates from the University of Iowa with a degree in Electrical Engineering, and begins his MSc there.

-1950. Wind River glacier field work in late July through September for his master's thesis.

-1951. Completes his MSc in geology, and begins work on his Ph.D. at Caltech (completed in 1957).

-1952. Returns to the Wind River Range to check their most recent changes.

-1956. Founds the U.S. Geological Survey department of glaciology, and begins serving as the director the USGS project office of glaciology in Tacoma, WA.

While director he helps pioneer the use of remote sensing (aircraft and satellites using special cameras to detect reflected and emitted radiation) to study glaciers. He also helps pioneer the research and development of ice-penetrating radar. And he also helps pioneer the use of physics and mathematics in glaciology. In sum, he is on the leading edge of a scientific revolution in glaciology, from a low-tech descriptive and classificatory paradigm to a high-tech, mathematically sophisticated field that emphasizes accurate measurements and models of glaciers and glacier dynamics. Using these new tools and methods, he leads an investigation into tidewater glacier dynamics, especially of iceberg calving into the oil tanker shipping lanes of Prince William Sound, Alaska, based on a long-term site study of the Columbia Glacier. He organizes the systematic measurement and assessment of glacier mass balance within North America. He helps forge the connection between glaciology and hydrology, recognizing the integral relation between the study of snow and ice and the study of water.

-1984. Publishes a landmark paper on the connection between the melting of small glaciers and sea level rise.

-1985. Leaves his position with the USGS to become director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) in Boulder, CO.

-1994. Becomes director emeritus of INSTAAR.

-1995. A lead author of the chapter on changes of sea level for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) second assessment report.

-2012. Passed away in Boulder, CO on Nov. 25th

This timeline helps answer some of my questions about Meier, even if the answers are somewhat speculative. He went to the University of Iowa for his undergraduate most likely because he was born and raised in Iowa. He probably pursued his MSc. in geology there for much the same reason, while still in the process of discovering his calling, since he left Iowa for California to pursue his Ph.D. He probably selected the Wind River Range as the location of his field study due to its abundance of glaciers, its proximity to Iowa City, and his prior familiarity with it from an Iowa Mountaineer's trip a few years earlier (led by none other than Paul Petzoldt!). It was probably on this trip that he developed the mountaineering skills in the use of crampons, ice axe, and rope work essential to his 1950 field study in the Winds. This study involved glacier travel over steep and crevassed areas, at least one ascent of Gannett, and a first ascent of Rampart Peak's SW Ridge (along with his field assistant Charles F. Darling). He seemed to enjoy mountaineering, though it probably was not an independently animating passion. We know that he returned to the Winds in the summer of 1952 for a follow up study, though there is no published record of his returning to it after that for study of its glaciers. He had moved on to bigger and more scientifically interesting glaciers, where he would link up his electronic and radar expertise learned during his Naval service to glacier measurement.

I need to contextualize the importance of Meier's Master's thesis, since it looms so large in my recent photography and exploration of the Winds. So far it has been cited 16 times, which is impressive for a Master's thesis, though it is far down the list of Meier's most influential publications. According to Google Scholar, his most cited publication (805 times so far) as lead author is the dauntingly titled "Glaciers Dominate Eustatic Sea-level Rise in the 21st Century," published in Science in 2007 ("eustatic sea-level," I just learned, is the distance from the sea surface to the geographic center of the earth, and is contrasted with the relative sea level, which measures the sea level relative to a land-based reference, such as a coast).

In 1950 there were not the powerful tools of the modern glaciologist: GPS, satellite imagery, light detection and ranging (LIDAR), drones, seismic reflection, electric profiling, and radar wave measurements. He could not dig holes reaching the rock substratum to measure the thickness of any of the glaciers, since he could not bring the heavy digging machinery into the Winds. He did have one major technique of remote sensing. There were aerial photos of many of the glaciers taken in 1945 (photographer unknown) and available through the American Geographical Society. He relied on them and topographic maps to construct planimetric (two-dimensional representation) maps with which to calculate the current area of the glaciers, as well as track their change of area over time. He also used aerial photos to determine the firn limit altitude (a line across a glacier between the snow-covered surface of the glacier--its firn--and the exposed glacier ice at lower elevation) (pp. 9-10). He used ablation stakes (three foot aluminum dowel rods of 1/2 inch diameter) on Dinwoody glacier, though he could only use them to measure changes in the surface of Dinwoody during the summer season. They could not provide the annual net accumulation and ablation rates of this glacier, and so couldn’t be used to measure its glacier mass balance. Instead, he used these stakes to measure glacier loss during the ablation (summer) season, and extrapolated from there. We know from explicit mention in his thesis that he brought in a portable scale to measure the weight of snow, and seems to have brought a survey measuring tape, which he used to measure the size of boulders. What other instruments might he have had? He could have had an altimeter to measure altitude, an optical range finder to measure distance, and an optical theodolite to measure angles, though there is no mention of these in his thesis. Despite the limitations of his measuring technology, Humphrey told me that the measurements and findings Meier produced for his thesis are reliable, and more accurate than at least one other prominent study of the Wind River glaciers done decades later. (We can see the great importance Meier placed on precise and accurate measurement in a comment he co-authored about another glaciologist’s measurements using ablation stakes, questioning the reliability of using wooden stakes in very hard ice).

It is neither the geological science nor Meier the person that are the origins of my preoccupation with his master's thesis; it is his photographs, more specifically, his land-based, wide-angle photos of the glaciers, photos that I can repeat. I have dwelled on the measuring techniques Meier used as a way to understand the role of these photos in his master’s thesis. The thesis contains 21 photos by Meier of wide-angle views of glaciers that are repeatable (they include enough information to relocate the vantage point). If his thesis had not contained these photos, I would have quickly passed over it. We know, from a repository of his 1950 photos displayed on the Glaciers of the American West website, that he took dozens more portraits of the glaciers that never showed up in his thesis. (Why not? Were they redundant? Not illustrative of important descriptive information? Too much?) It would not be easy to take such a large number of photos in 1950, with a medium format view camera on a tripod (the kind of camera where the photographer must drape a dark cloth over themselves and their camera to focus it, and slide film holders into and out of the back). It is worth emphasizing Pfeffer’s view that Meier used such an awkward contraption rather than a much more portable and easy to use range finder camera. I wonder: Why the compulsion to photograph the glaciers with such care? Was it scientific? Aesthetic?

During his 1950 field study of the Winds, Meier and his assistant made at least least two significant multiday trips from his basecamp. This also caught my attention. He, like me, was a backpacking photographer! Besides the photographs, my fascination with Meier’s thesis was to glean what little I could about his backpacking photography: What kind of gear did he use? What foods did he carry? What were his routes? How far did he and his partner go each day? Did he enjoy the backpacking, or was it merely burdensome?

Meier did not use land-based photography for most of the measurements he made of the glaciers. But he certainly used these photographs for the science. He used them as supporting documentation to his descriptions of important facets of the glaciers, such as steep ice tongues, crevassed zones, the character of the surface (clean or debris filled), the shape, size and relative location of the moraines, the character of the glacier snouts (termini), and the elevation of the firn lines. He doesn’t support all description with photographs, which suggests both the difficulty of photographing these features and that there was no disciplinary expectation that all descriptive analysis be backed with photographic evidence. Observation sufficed. Second, he used some of his photos, along with those by others taken earlier, to develop a history of the estimated firn limit (the line between glacial snow at higher altitude and uncovered glacier ice below it) of Dinwoody glacier over a twenty-year period (p. 33). But by and large, these photos aren’t doing much quantitative work; they are examples of what today we call “qualitative research.”

I’ve so far avoided what I regard as the real reason Meier spent so much time taking these photos: They are the earliest land-based photographic survey of these glaciers. The National Snow and Ice Data Center has no land-based photos of the Wind River glaciers taken before Meier's photos. Wentworth and Delo’s paper, “Dinwoody Glaciers, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming” given to the Geological Society in 1930, and which Meier relied heavily on, contains a handful of photos of Gannett and Dinwoody glaciers each, so nothing close to a survey of the major glaciers (we can see more of Delo’s photographs of Gannett, Dinwoody, and Gooseneck glaciers taken for this study on the Glaciers of the American West website). Kenneth Henderson’s early guidebook to the Winds (first published in 1932) has a few photos that include glaciers, but they are not careful portraits of them. Meier articulated the need for such a survey when he writes “Other glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, such as those in Colorado, the Tetons, and Glacier National Park, have been studied by prominent geologists and glaciologists, but the largest accumulation of glaciers in the Rockies has been, in comparison, nearly completely neglected. One of the purposes of this study, therefore, is to provide a general description of these glaciers for comparison with glaciers of better-known regions” (p. 8). He was not only establishing numeric baselines; he was also establishing a photographic baseline.

Today our interest isn’t in comparing Meier’s photographs of the Winds with other photos taken contemporaneously of other mountains. It is comparing what we see in his photos with what we see in recent photos. Meier keenly anticipated this role: “Another purpose is to provide a starting-point from which periodic recession measurements can be made, for these data may have great climatic significance” (p. 8). Not only did he provide starting-point measurements; he also provided starting-point visual documentation. I'm not alone in my fascination with Meier’s master’s thesis and its baseline photos. His thesis has been file view-downloaded over 200 times! I can understand if professional glaciologists find this niche obsession with a master’s thesis to be exasperating, when there is so much more important glaciological research about much more important glaciers, including work by Meier, to be popularized and understood in the public mind.

What’s so valuable to me isn’t Meier the person, nor his thesis. It is the trove of his highly detailed, wide angle, land-based photos; Meier, the glacier photographer. What influences me isn’t the appearance and feel of these photos. They were never intended to measure up to the aesthetic heights of Ansel Adams. Rather, his influence, which I hear as nearly a command, is to follow up on his initial photographic survey to document how the glaciers are doing today. He was using his photos for time travel, to reach into a future that is our present. And I’m reciprocating by reaching into and honoring his past.

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