Photos a century apart document glacial changes on Mount Baker

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 5, 2012 

Mount Baker photos

In 1912, Emil D. Welsh of Bellingham photographed the south side of Mount Baker from Loomis Mountain, about four miles away (top photo). In September 2012, people associated with Mount Baker Volcano Research Center in Bellingham photographed Baker from the same location. The matching photos shows the shrinkage of glaciers on Baker, notably Easton Glacier in the center of the photo.

JOHN SCURLOCK — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

About seven years ago, when mountain photographer John Scurlock first saw the 1912 photograph of the south side of Mount Baker, he was smitten with its historical value.

When Dave Tucker, a geology research assistant at Western Washington University, saw the photograph, he was intrigued because it showed the rim of Baker's summit crater.

Later, they kicked around the idea of replicating the photo to create a centennial "then-and-now" set of images that, among other things, would show how Mount Baker's glaciers, including the large Easton Glacier, in the middle of the photo, had shrunk over the past 100 years.

"Glaciers everywhere are retreating rapidly, this is just one example of that," said Eric Steig, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in glaciology and climatology.

As the project went forward, Tucker and Scurlock grew to appreciate the challenge the little-known photographer faced in 1912 carrying a large camera over rugged terrain to take the photograph from the rocky summit of Loomis Mountain, a peak that rises 5,598 feet nearly seven miles distant from Baker.

They wondered about the identity of "E.D. Welsh," the photographer's name on the image, and wondered why Welsh had bothered in the first place.

"How did anybody get there in 1912?" Tucker asked. "Talk about an obscure place."

The "who" is now clear. E.D. Welsh was Emil Derixon Welsh, who worked for Diehl and Simpson, the forerunner of Diehl Ford, and later owned a grocery store on G Street in Bellingham.

The "why" might have an answer. 1912 was the middle year of the three-year run of the Mount Baker Marathon, and Welsh's photograph shows one of two routes runners took to reach the summit of Baker in the wacky race.

Jeff Jewell, the all-knowing photo curator at Whatcom Museum, said Welsh was an enthusiastic photographer who generally worked with postcard-size glass negatives. Perhaps the hoo-ha over the marathon inspired Welsh's trek into the woods, camera in hand.

Scurlock first saw the photograph in an upstairs office at the U.S. Forest Service in Sedro-Woolley. A friend of his had brought the photo there from the Komo Kulshan guard station at Baker Lake.

The sepia image is about 15 inches by 24 inches and was framed, apparently, with wood from old Forest Service vegetable packing crates, Scurlock said.

To identify the spot where Welsh took the photo, Scurlock flew past Loomis Mountain and shot a series of aerial images of Baker.

"One of those photographs matched up almost perfectly with the Welsh photograph," he said.

Even these days, it's not a snap to reach the top of Loomis Mountain. On Sept. 5, Tucker, Scurlock and eight other people, including people from WWU and from North Cascades Institute, set out for the summit to reshoot Welsh's image. Alas, after hiking for several hours through brush and steep forested terrain, their path was blocked by a sheer rock face. On Sept. 16, seven of them tried again and succeeded.

Scurlock's photograph, matched with Welsh's, shows that Easton Glacier is just over a mile shorter than it was in 1912. Two other glaciers in the photo, Squak and Talum, are also smaller now.

Doug Clark, an associate professor at WWU who specializes in glacial geology, said a small-scale ice age in our region started about 700 to 800 years ago and ended a century or so ago, near the time that Welsh shot his photograph. Since then, glaciers have advanced and retreated at times, but overall have steadily grown smaller, due to global warming, he said.

A photograph like Welsh's is helpful, Clark said, because it helps to document glacial change. It's also a helpful reminder that glaciers are not the fixed figures they might seem from afar.

"Things are changing," Clark said, "and they're changing fairly dramatically."

BUY A BENEFIT POSTER

The Mount Baker Volcano Research Center, in Bellingham, is taking orders for a 20-inch by 30-inch poster, "Mount Baker - 100 Years of Change," showing the 1912 and 2012 photographs of the south face of Mount Baker.

The center is a group of geologists who research the geology and volcanology of Mount Baker and its volcanic field. Proceeds from sale of the poster support the center's research grant fund.

The poster is a high-quality print, available for $30, or for $55 with a styrene backing. There's a shipping fee, about $7, if local pick-up can't be arranged.

To place an order, send an email to research@mbvrc.wwu.edu, indicate whether you want a "rolled" or a "backed" poster, and include your mailing address.

The email address to order a poster was corrected Nov. 5, 2012.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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