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Slideshow: Collier Glacier - 100 Years of Retreat

Collier Glacier

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For more than 100 years, Oregon photographers have been taking pictures of Collier Glacier on the north side of Middle Sister. What they may not have realized is that their photos would help document the loss of Collier’s ice by probably 50 percent since 1900. What was once Oregon’s largest glacier now ranks behind better-preserved glaciers on Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson.

USGS geologist Jim O’Connor began duplicating the work of these photographers in the early 1990s and comparing the shots to assess the glacier’s retreat. But it’s more than just the science that interests O’Connor.

“I love the detective aspect of finding where these photos were taken from and retracing the steps of these early photographers.”

One favorite is Clarence Winter. This professional photographer went along on a Mazama outing in 1910 to document both the club’s adventures as well as the glacier. O’Connor and his team duplicated Winter’s photos 100 years later, almost to the day.

O’Connor says the trick is to match up objects in the vintage shots to the same features in the field. Back in the office, he then uses Photoshop to perfect his present-day matches. It sounds obvious, but it’s not.

“All these photographs were taken with different cameras and different lenses, so what I end up having to do is distort the images slightly so that all the key landscape features line up. I typically will focus on prominent points and then I zoom way in so everything is lined up as closely as possible.”

The most systematic set of photos that O’Connor has matched was compiled by pioneering naturalist and educator Ruth Hopson Keen. Dr. Hopson Keen was the first female naturalist at Crater Lake National Park and visited Collier Glacier in 1933. She didn’t photograph it then, but when her first shot taken in 1934 is compared to the last one in 1973, the loss of the mighty glacier’s long “snout” is clear as well as dramatic.

O’Connor has also begun duplicating the photos of Fred Cleator, an early recreation specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Cleator came to the area in 1920 to explore the newly created Skyline Trail — now the Pacific Crest Trail — and scout a route for a highway that would travel the spine of the Cascades.

That highway was never completed and access to the area still requires sturdy hiking legs and a Forest Service permit. O’Connor hopes to stay in good enough hiking shape to return to the area in eight years and do a 100-year match of Cleator’s photos. He jokes the photo matching work is really more a hobby than hard science. “It’s what a nerd geologist does for recreation.”

But when you watch Jim set up his camera to take his own photos of this beautiful area, you know the endeavor means more to him than just fun.

“I can go back to the same place and take the same photo, but somehow [the early photographers] captured the light so much better than I can. I feel kind of honored to stand in the same place that many of these same people have.”

Learn more about Collier Glacier this week on Oregon Field Guide.