7,000 pairs of images, 150 years of change

Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Mt. Assiniboine and Magog Lake from below “The Nub.” Historic image taken by Arthur Wheeler in 1913 as part of the Inter-Provincial Boundary Survey. Credit: MLP and Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

For anyone who has spent time in the mountains of western Canada, the landscape is incredibly majestic, memorable and perfect for postcards. But researchers from the University of Victoria’s Mountain Legacy Project are raising the alarm about the impacts of climate change on these remarkable vistas, by using repeat photography and an astonishing array of photographs—historical and recent—in one of the largest projects of its kind anywhere.

The research team, led by UVic environmental scientist Eric Higgs, has documented 150 years of ecological and cultural change by bringing modern camera equipment deep into the back country in the summertime for nearly 20 years and capturing fresh images of the same mountain scenes in exactly the same locations as the original photos (first taken by dozens of intrepid mountain surveyors from 1861 to 1958), then comparing the results.

Eric Higgs on the summit of Mt. Lougheed in Alberta, June 2017. Credit: Rick Arthur.

Repeat pairs of images over 19 summers

“We now have more than 7,000 repeat pairs of images gathered over 19 summers working with graduate and undergraduate students,” says Higgs. The project, originally led by Higgs at the University of Alberta (1998-2001), quickly grew beyond the Rocky Mountains and became the Mountain Legacy Project shortly after Higgs brought the project with him to UVic’s School of Environmental Studies in 2002.

Mary Sanseverino, a keen mountaineer, photographer and computer science instructor now retired from UVic, has been involved in the project since 2011. “The importance of the work is, to my mind, in the name of the project,” adds Sanseverino. “We make use of the important photographic legacy left to Canada by the early surveyors. We walk in their footsteps, stand where they stood, repeat their images and, through our research, pay their legacy forward to the future.”

Mary Sanseverino on the summit of Shark Tooth Mountain
Mary Sanseverino on the summit of Shark Tooth Mountain in the East Kootenay region of southeastern BC, Aug. 2014. Credit: Mike Whitney.

Mountains under pressure, captured by media

December 11 was International Mountain Day, with this year’s theme of “Mountains under Pressure: climate, hunger, migration.” The media coverage by the CBC news network and local radio was extensive that week, with commentary by Sanseverino on the photo collection and its historical importance heard on CFAX 1070AM in Victoria, as well as on CBC North and in Kelowna and Kamloops.

An online CBC story also highlighted the project, while national science commentator Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s weekly radio science show “Quirks and Quarks,” featured it on his blog.

People can clearly see the significant changes brought about by a shifting climate, human activity and development, and ecological processes.
Eric Higgs, UVic environmental scientist

Collaborative partnerships, devoted adventurers

The project’s new map-based tool offers side-by-side image comparisons and the ability to zoom into any of the thousands of images presently online. The historical images are housed at Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, Quebec and the BC Archives at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, and constitute the largest systematic collection of mountain photographs in the world.

The team uses archival research, image interpretation and analysis, as well as software development, to make the paired images widely available to ecologists, managers, researchers, historians, mountaineers, environmentalists, students and anyone else interested in the project and the Canadian landscape.

Higgs adds: “The image collection is globally distinctive—no other country has such a comprehensive photographic record of mountain landscapes from near the beginning of rapid development of mining, forestry and settlement in the Canadian West.”

Working with long-running partner Library and Archives Canada, UVic Libraries and the Canadian Mountain Network, which is hosted at U of A, Higgs and his team are exploring ways of expanding the scope and potential of the project to inform effective sustainable management, conservation and restoration of the fragile and changing mountain landscapes.

Funding was provided for the project from a variety of sources, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Alberta.


In this story

Keywords: climate, environment, research, Mountain Legacy Project, environmental studies

People: Eric Higgs, Mary Sanseverino

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