Day 6

This photographer is racing to capture glaciers as they melt faster than ever

Garrett Fisher has spent the last three summers photographing glaciers throughout Switzerland with the goal of showing the effect climate change has on the massive bodies of ice.

Garrett Fisher aims to show the effect of climate change on the massive bodies of ice

Four glaciers merge at Konkordiaplatz in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. Research suggests that by 2100, no ice will remain in the area. (Submitted by Garrett Fisher)

With research suggesting that glaciers are melting faster than ever before, financial consultant-turned-photographer Garrett Fisher is in a race to capture as many as he can.

For the past three summers, the Buffalo, N.Y., native, who now lives in Gstaad, Switzerland, has flown over the Alps in a single propeller, 1949 Piper PA-11, photographing the enormous bodies of ice. 

"I'm trying to capture the most succinct, efficient way to show the experience of these glaciers," Fisher, founder of the Global Glacier Initiative, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

With a camera in his right hand, he pilots the plane with his left, then "I lean over and point it out the window and grab a wide angle-shot," he said.

While scientists may rely on orthographically correct satellite imagery to study the impact of climate change on glaciers, it's photography that creates an emotional connection, Fisher says.

"They do the job for science, so I come at this and say, 'OK, that doesn't stir me at all' when I look at them. It doesn't really stir anyone."

Garrett Fisher, a financial consultant, flies over mountains in the U.S. and Europe in a 1949 Piper PA-11 to photograph the effect of climate change on glaciers. (Submitted by Garrett Fisher)

An April study, which used millions of satellite images to track changes, concludes the world's glaciers are getting smaller, faster

While it's been known for years that glaciers are shrinking as a result of rising global temperatures, the recent study finds they are now losing 267 billion tonnes of ice every year. Just one billion tonnes of ice is equal in mass to 10,000 fully loaded aircraft carriers.

According to Romain Hugonnet, a glaciologist at ETH Zurich and the University of Toulouse in France who led the study, glacier thinning rates have doubled in the last two decades.

'This is a fraction of what it was'

Fisher has seen firsthand the effect of climate change on glaciers. Flying hundreds of feet above the glaciers offers the photographer a bird's-eye view he can't get trekking through the mountains.

Fisher calls Konkordiaplatz, the meeting point of four glaciers in the Swiss Alps — "that looks like a super highway of ice" — among the most stunning he's photographed. 

Aletschgletscher, the largest glacier in the Alps, pictured in 2018. (Submitted by Garrett Fisher)

Modelling completed in 2019 by researchers at ETH Zurich estimates that by the end of the century, in a worst-case warming scenario, only "a couple patches of ice" will be visible along Aletsch glacier, the largest glacier feeding into Konkordiaplatz. 

According to the models, Konkordiaplatz itself could be completely ice free.

"You can already see from the plane clearly that it's 600 feet [182 metres] shallower than it used to be," compared to its peak depth in 1860, Fisher told Day 6.

Fisher has also witnessed glaciers breaking in real time.

The remaining ice of Driest glacier, near Riederalp in Switzerland, is only a portion of what once was there, according to Fisher. "So you can look and clearly see a moraine, clearly see the shorn rockface," he said. 

"In the time I flew by, the ice had literally broken and fallen off and was cascading down in parts. And I look at that and say, 'This is a fraction of what it was.'"

The Driest glacier, which lies to the north of Aletsch glacier, is only a fraction of what it once was, says Fisher. (Submitted by Garrett Fisher)

Next stop: Canada

After photographing the Alps, Fisher says he hopes to capture glaciers in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska.

That would require a new airplane — his current plane, which was shipped to Europe, doesn't have the range to cross the Atlantic. He hopes to take on Mount Logan in B.C. and Denali in Alaska. 

A study published in 2015 showed that 70 per cent of glacier ice in British Columbia and Alberta could disappear by 2100. 

"The thing about Canada that's interesting to me is it's such an enormous surface area," Fisher said.

"I don't even know that most people know what's there that they're going to miss when it's gone."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Canadian Press. Interview with Garrett Fisher produced by Pedro Sanchez.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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