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The great retreat

December 13, 2009

Five years ago I purchased a photograph by the late Bradford Washburn, the uncontested pioneer of museum-quality aerial photography. Driving home and sneaking peeks of my new picture of mountaineers high on a glacier, I started wondering: If global warming is real, what does that icy scene look like now?

The result of that question was three trips to Alaska, two trips to the Alps and a series of 15 comparison black-and-white photographs in an exhibit touring the country. I re-shot Washburn pictures from the 1930s and 1960s at the same altitudes and vantage points, and sometimes almost to the same day and minute.

The news is not good.

As the photos show, the ice world is melting fast. This includes the ice stored in the planet's largest water tower, the Himalayan mountain range, which annually sends drinking water down seven major rivers to hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian citizens. In another 20 or so years, they are likely to start getting thirsty; the well-armed governments for another 7 billion people will be getting snippy about their water; and I won't be able to buy flood insurance for my home on the Boston waterfront.

I am not a scientist. Frankly, I took a college course called "Physics for Poets" to fulfill my science requirement. But I do know something about how scientists work, and about how a host of smart, fallible people advance theories one baby step at a time, then defend them in the acid bath called peer review where colleagues nibble, swat, swipe and scratch at the research.

Good science is a seemingly endless series of tweaks, not one or five guys with controversial theories that allow us to keep burying our heads in ethereal hope. Good science is 620 authors citing thousands of peer-reviewed studies for the latest U.N. climate report. The process is far from perfect. But the consensus is overwhelming that the planet's passengers are headed for deep trouble. Even rock-solid scientific acceptance, of course, doesn't always sway the public. Consider that one-third of American adults believe the Earth was created in six days.

No analogy is perfect, but I look at it this way: I'm told I have a malignant brain tumor and it's growing. Ninety-eight doctors say that if the tumor is not removed (possibility of non-life-threatening complications), I will die. Two well-credentialed doctors say there is no research that can prove the tumor will continue to grow, so sit tight.

I'm going with the surgery. And the flood insurance.

David Arnold, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, is art director of Double Exposure (doublexposure.net), a global-warming photographic exhibit.

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