In the late aughts, Anderson heard the Rockies’ glaciers were melting. “My first thought was, this is the environment that I love, these alpine environments, the beauty of these places. I felt sad, first and foremost. And then I thought, ‘Well, who is documenting these places?’”
When months of searching for someone recording the glacial recession turned up empty, Anderson decided to do it himself. “It was really out of a sense of responsibility,” he says.
The three collaborators are currently wrapping up a second project, documenting glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park. Anderson is also waiting to hear about a grant from the National Science Foundation that would send him to Antarctica.
“The Last Glacier” is a compelling and invaluable work, said Gary Machlis, the University Professor of Environmental Sustainability and scientific adviser to the director of the National Park Service for eight years until early January 2017. “Climate change is the environmental challenge of our age, and responding to this challenge requires a constellation of voices — including those of artists like Todd.
“Art can be a portal for understanding in a visceral, emotional way what science attempts to demonstrate through theory, data and analysis,” Machlis said. “Todd’s work is powerful, and his collaborative team is unique and so committed to their task. Viewing the images in ‘The Last Glacier’ is a reminder of what is at risk and what might be lost if we do not act.”
In 1910, there were 150 glaciers within the new 1 million-acre Glacier National Park in Montana’s Rocky Mountains. When Anderson started his work, in 2010, all but 25 had melted.
Glaciers, the marvelous remnants of the last ice age, are made from the bottom up by layer upon layer of snow that melts into ice, the accumulating weight pressing the earth, picking up and setting down boulders as they slide incrementally. For the past 7,000 years, the glaciers in the park have stretched for miles, like giant beached whales caught between mountains and frozen by time.
Melting ice, rising seas
Lakes dot a valley in Glacier National Park that a glacier once filled. Photo courtesy of Todd Anderson.
When glaciers melt they don’t simply disappear, they become water. Increasingly, they’re adding to rising sea levels.
Melt from all the glaciers and ice sheets in the world are responsible for two-thirds of global sea level rise (the rest is attributed to warming seas), according to Andrew Fountain a glaciologist at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, who agreed to write a scientific note about the next project by Anderson and his colleagues.
Twenty years ago, Fountain said, alpine glaciers, like the ones in Glacier National Park, were the first to melt. “Now Greenland is beginning to melt,” he said.
By 2040, with a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperature, sea levels will rise significantly along 90 percent of the world’s coastlines, affecting hundreds of millions of people, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Fountain has introduced many artists to the wilderness in Antarctica, where he conducts some of his research. When Anderson asked him, out of the blue, to contribute to an artistic project, Fountain considered it a way to tell more people about the melting glaciers.
“Getting this information out to people is super important,” said Fountain. “It’s a gateway to science. I might be attracted to the subject by graphs and plots, but others might be attracted by art.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship, Anderson said, as scientists wrap the art in a scientific context.
“Working with scientists is very critical to my projects. We’re trying to bridge gaps and we’re trying to connect with as many folks as we can,” Anderson said. “What the scientists provide is things that we can’t provide – analytical analysis and whole, unique perspectives of what’s going on with the landscape.”
There is also common ground among artists and scientists, and aficionados of each. Science, Fountain said, can be incredibly creative, like when it’s time to choose the right approach to finding a solution. And when looking at Anderson’s art, the glaciologist sees clues to the glacier’s life, such as whether it’s advancing or retreating.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Anderson found work at Tandem Press, an international printing house affiliated with UW’s School of Education. Tandem has a tradition of attracting famous artists to experiment and print in its studio. David Lynch, Chuck Close, Art Spiegelman and Judy Pfaff are among its alumni.
Essentially, Anderson worked with artists accustomed to producing singular pieces of art and helped them create prints that “would be totally and wholly unique, but you could make 20 or 30 of these things and more people could have it.”
Printmaking, he said, “is an inherently democratic medium, and for me that was really what grabbed me.” “The Last Glacier” project is similarly intended to be shared with the masses, Anderson said. “Our mission is to get the work into the public sphere,” he said.
And he wants future masses to experience the work, which makes acquisitions by the Met, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress special.
“One of the things I want to do as an artist is to talk about the immediacy of things going on in the world. But art, as I understand it and the way I approach it, it’s a multigenerational conversation,” Anderson said.
In museums, “when we look at a painting from the 1800s it helps us understand what people’s values were, what people thought about,” he said.
“It’s just as important when future generations who go to museums and get to see this work. It’s not just saying, ‘Oh, there used to be a glacier here,’ but it’s also saying, ‘This is a little bit about us.’ In a very, very small way. Of what we valued as a society and what we thought about, the challenges we were trying to face and engage.”
Working with collaborators also amplifies the message and grows the audience. Anderson initially planned to work alone, but the glaciers were so vast and distant – 10 to 15 miles from an access road – that he enlisted Crownover and van Coller to help cover the territory.
The result, Anderson said, is “three very unique artistic visions of essentially the same thing. The hope is that by presenting the viewer with three different versions of three different artists, that folks might be able to latch on. If they don’t like my work, maybe they’ll really like Bruce’s. Or if they don’t like Bruce’s, maybe they’ll like Ian’s.”