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Photographer Uses Fire and Ice to Show How Glaciers Melt

See how a National Geographic photographer captured a moment in time that reflects decades of change.

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There's much to be said about the impact of a side-by-side comparison. Take for example an image of a pristine lake from the 1800s, compared to a photo of that same lake today. You might see a visible reduction in water level, or perhaps new development in the area—maybe the lake has completely dried and is no longer there at all. What makes photo comparisons striking are the differences between the two images that are now made so apparent. (See creepy before and after photos of abandoned American resort towns.)

But what if you can make the same impact with one single photo?

National Geographic photographer Simon Norfolk makes the case for using creative means to land a big impact. It was on Mount Kenya where that case was made, after the photographer raked fire across it's rocky, icy surface to create the mapped visualization of what he calls "time's thickness."

One image from the photo series, which was titled "When I am Laid in Earth," has racked up nearly 700,000 likes since it was posted to National Geographic's Instagram account on November 25.

The process of capturing the photo involved Norfolk setting up camp on Mount Kenya for 18 days, inhabiting an old mountaineering hut. Though he eventually decided on burning gasoline, Norfolk says that getting the perfect shot took a fair bit of trial and error—toying around with different ideas and experimenting with a wide range of burning techniques from paraffin fuels, to lasers, to flashlights. Says Norfolk, "There are lots of different ways to draw a line...at night...on a mountain."

"When I started to think about petrol [gasoline], not only does the flame itself give you a really beautiful color, but the most interesting thing for me was the metaphor—the heart of a piece of work," says Norfolk. "If you're talking about ice, and then fire, well then you've got a beautiful kind of conflict at the heart of the work."

This age-old war between fire and ice is what Norfolk described as a "metaphorical conflict." The meaning behind his images was further layered by the irony of gasoline's role in the warming of our climate. Norfolk says he laments the burning of hydrocarbons to "drive our cars, run our air conditioners, and fly our airplanes."

It was with a petrol-soaked, makeshift fire torch that he slowly walked along the glacier's previous boundaries—his camera set for long exposures of an hour or more. Using this method, he was able to pyrographically document glacial retreating on the mountaintop.

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As Norfolk describes in his Instagram post for National Geographic, "The flame line in this image shows the Lewis Glacier's location in 1987. The pond is called the Curling Pond. In 1987 its surface was 15m higher than it currently is—the glacier's snout. The glacier has sine retreated about 120m."

Besides helping to win publicity for Project Pressure (the small NGO who commissioned the original project), Norfolk says he wants to raise awareness about the environmental costs of adventure travel. He has cut down on the amount of travel he does, he says, adding that he aims for frugality.

Norfolk says that he takes issue with travelers who fly across nations to climb mountains they might not know much about, and he urges people to consider that there's much to explore even in your own local park. If you are going to travel internationally, Norfolk advises to do as much research as possible on the culture and history of your intended destination, and to explore on foot and using public transportation when possible.

Ultimately, though the melting of glaciers and the thick smog settling over distant cities may seem removed from many people's daily lives, all our decisions can be felt throughout the world, he says.