The Glaciers Are Melting

Change often times is invisible to our eyes. If it happens very slow, or very fast for that matter, we cannot perceive it visually and we have to apply our mental faculty of remembering visual impressions and recreate them after a little bit of time. This overlay of memory onto the ongoing present impressions allows us to compare, evaluate the differences and reason about the causes. It is all a complicated and highly artificial procedure. However since we have begun this nasty habit of inventing machines we have used them to the purpose of “slowing down time”, and the illusions produced by that illustrate movements that would not naturally be visible to the eye.

I found an example of this curious mental activity just recently after an enjoyable visit to the Aletsch Glacier in the Walliser Alps. Beatriz had never seen a glacier in her life, having grown up in the mountain ranges of the tropics, where such natural phenomena are very few and far between. It would clearly be unforgivable to leave Switzerland as we will be doing soon without allowing her the joy of witnessing such a sight. Langenthal’s Gemeindeverwaltung conveniently sells decently priced railway day passes. With them one travels for an entire day anywhere on the dense network of the Swiss Federal Railway from midnight to midnight. We had two of them in our pockets when we stumbled to the Langenthal train station one recent Monday morning shortly before sunrise. I was still on vacation and not very happy about such an early start of the day. But we have duly assimilated the sacred duty of Swiss efficiency. We wanted to squeeze the last drop of advantage from our passes!

The train soon had us glide through mesmerizing landscapes, first amongst the gently rolling hills of the central Swiss Plateau with the rounded ranges of the Jura Mountains to the North enchanting our slowly opening eyes. Eons ago there were enormous glaciers grinding over this Plateau and for my trained eye it didn’t take much work to see results of that in the shapes of the terrain. After leaving the Medieval Zähringer City of Bern behind we zipped through its little cousin, also carved out of blocks of green grey sandstone: The bilingual fortress of Fribourg. A little later we popped out from a short tunnel and the view opened wide onto the Lac Leman, where a gentle breeze was drawing rhythmic ripples on the deep blue waters. Still travelling at a breakneck speed the valley of the Wallis swallowed us and before we knew it we were approaching its narrowing origin up amongst the snow-capped ranges of the Alps. But before we reached it, it was time to step off the speeding bullet we had been riding on.

Since having lived on the wavy ocean waters for extended periods of time I suffer from bouts of vertigo when standing on obviously elevated locations, and I was a bit weary to step into the tiny cabin of the cable car that was about to lift us up along the steep walls of the upper Wallis valley. But it all went without a hitch and before we knew it we were at the dizzying elevation of 2’800 Meters looking down on the other side of a jagged crest onto the mighty dirt white tongue of the longest glaciers in the European Alps.

aletsch - 1

aletsch - 2

I have been serving up this harmless travel itinerary to be able to make a point. When you look at this colossal mass of ice lying at the bottom of the winding valley, you can’t help but remember what some good-hearted geography teacher has tried to trickle into the fast diminishing curiosity of my youth: That water even in its solid aggregate state continues to follow gravity’s call and flows downhill, albeit at a very minimal speed. Experts talk about an average speed of the Aletsch Glacier’s ice flow just shy of half a meter a day. As impressive as this sounds, and as spectacular the thought experiments I twist my mind into turn out to be, the fact is that this motion is below what can be perceived by our eyes. The phenomenon remains invisible to us and our believing it can only be based on induction. Unless… Unless we use our machines!

Time-lapse photography used to be a cumbersome process, to be realized exclusively with specialized high tech cameras. Nowadays the almighty computer has brought this clever trickery to the nosy fingertips of the common denizen. But to do it well, a mature and solid craft is needed as much as ever. Just imagine that you have to position your camera in a protected position, where it can live safely for a considerable amount of time, while it takes an automated sequence of pictures. I wanted to understand the basic challenges of this craft so I tried my luck on my irresistible fascination with the spectacle of cloud formation. Watching the resulting video sequence I was immediately able to grasp a motion critical to the understanding of weather dynamics: the spiraling rotation of the air mass around a horizontal axis lying in line with the direction of its flow.

Another dizzying ride on the cable car had brought us back down onto the valley floor and our train exploit continued up the Goms, Obergoms, through the Furka Base Tunnel, down to Andermatt and Göschenen, past the clean and yet virgin entrance to the latest monumental engineering feat of the Swiss, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, where giant machines have bored their way under 50km of alpine granite, down along the Eastern arm of the Lake Lucerne towards the city that lends her name to this lake, and finally back home to our nondescript little town of Langenthal. Soon after I sat in front of my laptop researching without any particular aim the glacier we had just visited and feasted our eyes upon. The first thing I stumbled upon gave me a totally new understanding of the challenging dilemma of global warming:

Switzerland, Aletsch Glacier 1 (Greenpeace) 2007
c-print mounted between plexi
h: 48 x w: 60 in / h: 121.92 x w: 152.4 cm

Once recovered from that act of self-celebration I hit the intellectual jackpot with a splendidly crafted time-lapse sequence of the long and winding Aletsch Glacier tongue on the move. Just what I had been looking for! And I hope you agree, it makes visible the invisible and let’s the beauty return from the shady realm of the logically reasoning intellect into the clear and transparent eye of the beholder!

http://www.raize.ch/Berge/Diverses/Webcam_Eggishorn.htm

 

PS: As you might notice below, Beatriz suffered from a bout of enhanced spirituality during her first encounter with the glacier tongue!

aletsch - 4

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One Response to “The Glaciers Are Melting”

  1. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    Good article!!! It was a really beautiful experience too. To observe very well The Glaciers and feel that you have to say thanks to the universe for providing us with water at the moment and think how the world would survive with out it.

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