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The Vaux Family Legacy—Seeing Climate Change in Black and White

How a train stop in the Canadian Rockies led to a lifetime of scientific research

The first climate scientists didn't set out to study global warming—they just thought they were going on a fun train ride. Meet Mary, George IX, and William Vaux. They, along with their father, George Sr., wanted to be among the first to ride the new rail line from Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies. What they saw captivated them—massive glaciers visible from a railway reststop. They took lots of photos and measurements. Seven years later, when they came back, they were shocked at what they found. As it turns out, that dining stop in the Canadian Rockies led to a lifetime of research.

Fast forward one hundred years. George IX's grandson, Henry Vaux, Jr., went to the very same spots his “grand siblings” had documented to carry on what they had started. With his re-photography, one can actually “see” climate change—right there in black and white.

By Frani Halperin, Executive Producer
Published: 07 Sep 2015 | © H2O Media, Ltd.


The Vaux family—Mary, George IX, and William in 1887. Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Frani Halperin, H2O Radio: Ahh, the Canadian Rockies—land of superlatives. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. Lakes an iridescent blue, rugged peaks that sweep up to the sky, abundant wildlife, waterfalls, caves, deep canyons. It’s almost drama overload. The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess such exceptional natural beauty, they attract millions of visitors every year.

But it wasn’t always the case, of course. Long before the Trans-Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific Railway opened up these mountains, indigenous tribes like the Kootenay, Cree, and Blackfoot lived in these lands—for centuries. Then came the European fur traders and prospectors as well as explorers looking for navigable routes to the Pacific.

When the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1885, a wave of affluent, aristocratic travelers followed.

Henry Vaux, Jr.: It was my great-grandfather and his three children, they were very much interested in railroads. They came to Vancouver because they were anxious to ride home on the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway.

Frani: I’m talking with Henry Vaux, Jr. His great-grandfather, a Philadelphia lawyer and philanthropist, George Vaux, Sr., were among the first to make the journey.

Henry: They stopped for a night at the Glacier House Hotel. It was a CPR facility.

Frani: Glacier House was a kind of a rest stop. In those early days trains couldn’t tow dining cars because they added too much weight for an engine straining to climb a mountain pass.

Henry: .. And they were instantly captivated by the “Great Glacier.”

Frani: By “Great Glacier” he means what today is called the Illecillewaet Glacier.

Henry: They took some photographs of the glaciers, and the younger brother William who was an architect/engineer made a map of the toe of the glacier. That was in 1887.

Frani: And they didn’t come back... for seven years.

Henry: When they came back, they were shocked at how much the glacier had retreated.

Frani: So they documented what they saw. They took measurements. And lots of pictures. And then they came back. And then they came back again.

Henry: For 11 years...and then two of them for another three years, and they made scientifically based measurements thanks to William who knew how to make those measurements of the recession of the “Great Glacier,” the Illecillewaet Glacier, as well as photographs—year in and year out.

Frani: Unbeknownst to them, the siblings Mary, George IX, and William...

Henry: My grand siblings as I call them...

Frani: They were essentially becoming North America’s first glaciologists.

Henry: They had hard scientific measurements that were made in what were certainly scientifically acceptable methods of the day. They worked on other glaciers as well. They were certainly among the first to discover that glaciers on the North American continent were receding and that recession was fairly widespread.

Frani: For the next fourteen years they studied glacial movement and presented their findings to the Natural Academy of Sciences in the U.S. Their captivatingly beautiful photographs were considered a breakthrough in the new field of glaciology—but don’t call it art...

Henry: I’ve always felt that what the siblings were doing was photography as art.

Frani: The Vaux Family were Quakers who had come to America to escape religious persecution.

Henry: At that time, as I put it, the hard-nosed Quakers frowned on the arts, including music, as being frivolous, but that to keep the hard-nosed Quakers off their back they said, “Oh we’re just doing science.” It was really art masked as science.

Frani: So although they assiduously mapped and monitored the glaciers, what did they think was causing the retreat?

Henry: I think they thought it was naturally occurring. I think it was well understood that there was a natural cycle to glacier accretion and glacier wasting. I think those people knew that there had been a little ice age, but it was I think generally known that since the little ice age those glaciers were receding as matter of natural causes. And I’m sure it never occurred to them that it had something to do with industrialization.

Frani: Fast forward 100 years. I’m at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, to see an exhibit by Henry Vaux, Jr.

Henry: I got the idea of going out and re-photographing some of those images 100 years later.

Frani: Looking at his images—they’re jarring before and after photos—taken from the exact same spots his family did a century before. And taking them that wasn’t easy—for starters he had to learn black-and-white photography.

Henry: I didn’t know much about black-and-white photography at the time.

Frani: And also some things had changed like highways and structures being built that obscured the view.

Henry: The growth of brush...the abandonment of trails, the fact that I couldn’t walk across glaciers, and so forth.

Frani: And some were just a trek because the glaciers had retreated so far. The Illecillewaet Glacier that got this whole thing going? The first time the family first saw it in 1887, it was a twenty-minute walk to the toe, or terminus. Now it’s a four-hour technical climb.

The pictures are so arresting I decide to want to see some of these glaciers for myself. From the Whyte Museum, I drive west on a cloudless gorgeous day on the Icefields Parkway, which parallels the Continental Divide. Rats, I’m losing signal once I get out of Banff. Okay radio off, but it’s a bit of a drive to the Athabasca glacier—the largest ice body in the Canadian Rockies—which, if you want to see a glacier from the comfort of your car—this is the one for you. Or at least it used to be.

Garry Clarke: It used to be that you could walk fairly directly from the highway right onto the glacier.

Frani: That’s Garry Clarke, glaciologist from the University of British Columbia. He’s been studying glaciers for about 45 years.

Garry: Now you have to walk quite far to get to the glacier.

Frani: Indeed, I start toward the glacier from the highway, and markers line the road like tombstones indicating where the glacier used to be.

Garry Clarke: I worked on the Athabasca Glacier in around Summer of 1965-66, working as a grad student. It’s interesting, I think at that time, we had no idea that the days of glaciers in the Rockies were numbered.

Frani: He says it’s thinned by easily 50 meters since he was there.

Garry: The thickness of these glaciers—it’s one of the thicker ones—I think it might be 200-300 meters in some places, but if you’re thinning at something like a meter a year it doesn’t take long to run out of ice.

So there’s a real concern that by the end of this century depending on how vigorous we are about trying to control carbon dumping into the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning, there won’t be ice in the Rockies at all.

Frani: What’s the impact? I mean aside from their being beautiful, what would happen if they go away?

Garry: In particular, Columbia Icefields feeds three different oceans: the headwaters of three rivers that flow into the Pacific, the Arctic, and the Atlantic. One of things that keeps the river supplied with water in the hot summer months, like July and August of summers like this, is glacier melt. As soon as the glaciers are gone, you’ll lose that so there’ll be no water supply to those rivers for several months of the year.

Frani: The other water supply is snowmelt and rainfall, and they stand to lose a lot of snowfall if the climate warms.

Garry: It’s a kind of double whammy.

Frani: And here’s another thing that might sound familiar to us in the western U.S.

Garry: There are studies conducted at University of Alberta by a famous water scientist called David Schindler, and they suggest that the whole prairies were exceptionally wet throughout the 20th century relative to historical averages. What we we’re experiencing as we settled western Canada was in fact a false abundance of water.

Frani: Similar to what’s being said about the Colorado River.

Garry: So we can expect irrespective of climate change, just the ordinary fluctuations, that 20th century might have been a bit of a freak and the twenty-first century could just be a lot drier anyway. We lose the glacier contribution than that multiplies the problem.

Frani: Is there anything we can do to stop this, or at least slow it down?

Garry: We can save glaciers in the Rockies, but only if we act quite soon. We actually have to get to something like zero carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning, we have to get there something like 2040. You have to think of the political processes that would have to be set in motion to make anything like that possible.

Frani: Yes, the politics are daunting. There are many out there who still doubt the science. And more often than that it comes to down to arguments that reining in carbon will hurt the economy.

Garry: It’s not like going back to the Stone Age. We see beautiful electric cars...ways to save, electric. It’s not like you have to burn stuff in order to have a civilization. It’s a kind of mark of un-civilization to behave as we are now.

Frani: But there are reasons for optimism. Recently Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama, they were in the Arctic for a glacier conference.

Garry: I got more optimistic recently. We’re not going to be able to stop the clock, but we can at least slow it and start attending to tasks that we’ve been postponing for a long time. It does seem like there’s a lot of political will now.

Frani: Maybe concrete action will be taken at the upcoming Paris Climate Talks this December, but victories might be tenuous if a new U.S. president is elected who is less convinced of the urgency...Or will only move “at a glacial pace” when the clock is really ticking.

A glacial pace...right. The Vaux family photographs suggest that maybe it’s time to rethink that metaphor. It shows what can happen in such a short amount time. If you ask Henry, though, I think he’d say it’s about creating dialogue instead of preaching. You know—show, don’t tell.

Henry: Rather than to rant and rave about global change and the melting of the glaciers is to simply lay the pictures out there. I think it is true that a picture is worth more than 1,000 words, and I took that position that people would look at it and get the message. 💧