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Sometimes a beautiful photograph is not a pretty picture

On a rainy April morning in 2005, I was driving home with a newly purchased Bradford Washburn photograph propped against the passenger window.


Guyot Glacier, 1938.

Click image above to view slideshow.


It was an aerial picture of a glacier, one of thousands taken by the former president of the Museum of Science (who died in 2007). Sneaking peeks at the photograph, I wondered: If the hullabaloo about planet warming is true, has this scene changed?

The question resulted in an exhibition of historic and contemporary photographs of glaciers, now touring the country, and a new project in the works using a similar methodology: I am shooting corals, using benchmarks from other photographers to create comparisons by replicating the camera angles and conditions in the earlier pictures.

The news is not good. The ice world is melting fast. And about 40 percent of the planet’s reefs are in decay: Coral death is complicated, but human fingerprints are all over it. Humans are to blame, and humans are the solution. Says who? Says 98 percent of the peer-reviewed climate research and every significant national science academy. Our dependence on fossil fuels with their byproduct of carbon dioxide is thickening a heat-trapping invisible quilt around the earth.

Frankly, science has never been my strong suit. I took “Physics for Poets” to fulfill my college requirement. But looking through a lens at the pace of change today has forced me to ask questions and judge motives of the deniers because, although I have not become a scientist, I have become more science literate.

The research put through the acid bath of peer reviews says that if we don’t smarten up fast, a dangerously warmer planet ensues. We don’t want this, particularly on our watch. The consequences are unfathomable — not to mention the guilt.

So the skittish among us start concocting narratives to address the very understandable anxiety. Those narratives offer hope, albeit spurious: We hope that the science is faked; climatologists are in it for the money; Gore is just a griping presidential loser; we are in a natural warming cycle; we are in a natural cooling cycle; we can legislate against the laws of physics and chemistry; the problem is not coal and oil but water vapor and cow farts; we can throw sulfuric pixie dust into the atmosphere and all will be well. Adding more science may only increase the anxiety and the need to cling to narratives.

The rub is that science is a discipline. It thrives on transparent peer-chewed data. Evidence, not opinion, makes good science.

The good news is that, just as these photographs speak to unsettling change, they speak to nature’s plasticity. We have the technology to reverse our course. The science says that if we get off a fossil-fuel diet, the monster will retreat. It’s physics for poets.