From under a backdrop of fiery fall trees and blue skies, John Scurlock piloted his little yellow airplane across the grassy field at the Mears Field airport in Concrete and took off into the air.
He took a quick trip to Mount Baker, circling the peak topped with fresh snow. Scurlock spends a lot of time in the chilled air around mountain peaks with a camera lens pressed to the cockpit window of his plane, which is no larger than his pickup truck, except for its outstretched wings.
In September, Scurlock wrapped up his latest series of mountain flights during which he gathered information for glacier research. The work combines three of his passions: flying, photography and geology.
“I have been a climber and a backpacker and a traveler in wild places,” Scurlock said. “I was always interested in mountains, and I was also always interested in photography, and as a child I wanted to be a pilot for the Air Force.”
Scurlock’s aerial photography took off in 2002, after he built his plane — a Van’s Aircraft RV-6.
His love of mountains took him into those closest to home first. He captured stunning vistas of a snow-capped Mount Baker and other peaks in the North Cascades.
He narrowed in on specific glaciers for the first time in 2004, circling above Mount Baker and stooping lower to get a closer look at the masses of ice, as the wind allowed him.
Scurlock estimates he flew around Mount Baker about 100 times between 2002 and 2004, capturing scenic images for pleasure and portraits of glaciers to further research being done by the U.S. Geological Survey, Portland State University and other organizations.
Since then he has frequently navigated difficult terrain in order to get picturesque or science-worthy photos of many of the nation’s peaks and shrinking glaciers.
“The scientists want to be able to see the margins of the glaciers ... so you’re circling endlessly over specific glaciers over and over and over again, and have to change elevations depending on winds,” Scurlock said.
As Scurlock’s airplane circles each target, he points his camera lens out the bubble-shaped window in the cockpit to catch shots that researchers can compare to historic photos and satellite images.
USGS research ecologist Dan Fagre and Andrew Fountain of Portland State University said Scurlock’s photos have played an important role in the ongoing effort to document glacial change.
“He produced excellent images that were very instrumental to our work to describe the glaciers and their recession,” Fagre said.
Since taking up the trade, Scurlock has ventured far beyond the North Cascades. He has photographed glaciers for the purpose of research in every state that has them, other than Colorado, from the Sierras to the North Cascades to the Olympics, to Montana, Wyoming, and the single glacier in Idaho.
Portland State University has 14,581 photos credited to Scurlock on its webpage for the research.
His photos were used to help calculate for the first time an estimate of how much the glaciers in the North Cascades, which supply the Skagit River with some water as they melt in the summer, have changed since monitoring began in the 1950s.
The study, through the National Park Service’s Glacier Monitoring Program, concluded the glaciers have shrunk 19 percent since 1959 — an amount of ice equivalent to an estimated 800 billion gallons of water.
A valuable view
Photographs of glaciers are taken from hikeable vantage points, or from the air, Fountain said. Scurlock’s work has provided a way for researchers to compare historic aerial photos with modern glimpses of the glaciers previously captured, often in fuzzy black-and-white print.
Scurlock’s images show the texture and steepness of the ice, giving those with or without science backgrounds “a more intuitive feel for what the glacier is like,” Fountain said.
Scurlock’s photos have also helped confirm what Fagre and other researchers were seeing in satellite images of the glaciers, and helped them come up with more accurate estimates of how the ice cover has changed over the years.
USGS is looking at how mountain glaciers are disappearing over time because they are a good indicator of climate change.
“If there is continual shrinkage you’re getting pretty substantial local climate change,” Fagre said.
Fagre said Sculrock’s photos also help reveal parts of the glacier covered with shadows or rock.
“Rock falls can cover parts of the ice, which will then not be seen and calculated ... We assume there is no glacier there, when in fact there are hundreds of feet of ice,” Fagre said.
Seeing the change
While the researchers carefully calculate the changes in glacial cover, Scurlock said he has witnessed some obvious changes from above.
“There have been some notable changes. For example, the Coleman Glacier on the side of Baker has moved uphill substantially over the years I’ve been photographing it,” he said.
The 100-year comparison of the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker, and the more recent differences he has documented at the Coleman Glacier, stand out in his memory.
“The Coleman Glacier has receded quite a bit since I’ve been photographing it, and it’s very obvious in my own photographs,” Scurlock said.
The images he collected in September of glaciers in Glacier National Park don’t have the same dramatic effect, he said. That’s where the researchers come in, who have yet to review the images and analyze how the ice has changed over the last seven years.
This winter Scurlock will continue flying, primarily for the sake of the picturesque views. But he plans to continue contributing to glacier research in the future, and may even add Colorado’s glaciers to his growing collection of photos in the near future, he said.
Fountain and Fagre said Scurlock’s passion for photography and interest in geology make his work particularly valuable to them.
“He’s a real craftsman. He really pays attention to things and understands why we want to photograph these things (the glaciers) ... He’s a real asset,” Fagre said.