Timelapse Photography from a Glaciologist's Perspective: An Interview with Luc Moreau

Public Space

4 minutes

Today is Earth Day! We've been discussing its significance throughout the week on our website and on Facebook. In celebration of this day, we have an exclusive interview for you!

We had the honor of talking with Luc Moreaou, an independent glaciologist connected with the EDYTEM (Environments, Dynamics, and Mountain Territories) laboratory at CNRS in Chambéry. Luc has dedicated over ten years to utilizing automatic cameras and timelapses to scrutinize glaciers in the Alps, Greenland, Nepal, and Patagonia.

– What tasks does a glaciologist undertake?

Luc Moreaou: A glaciologist's role encompasses measuring and observing glaciers. My expertise lies in gauging glaciers and the water flowing beneath them. This water can be tapped by hydroelectric firms, and I collaborate with several. We examine the glacier’s reactions to climatic changes. There are other areas of focus, like those of many glaciologists at the Grenoble Glaciology Laboratory, who predominantly work on profound core drilling.

– What piques your interest in glacier movements?

Luc Moreaou: Broadly speaking, examining glaciers means analyzing a crucial element in the hydrological cycle, essential for earth's wellbeing, advantageous, yet sometimes perilous to human settlements. They're fascinating because they document atmospheric composition and air quality in enclosed bubbles... although that's more the realm of chemical glaciology.

Glacier dynamics are tied to temperature: in Greenland, glaciers are hastening as the sea temperature rises. For instance, the apex of Mont Blanc is exceedingly chilly, at -15°, so it only moves two meters annually through deformation. But below 4,000 meters, glaciers start melting, and the snow, which reaches 0° by summer's end (tagged as a temperate glacier), causes the glacier to slide like a ski, plunging at rates of up to 2 metres daily. When it encounters a lake or the sea, as in Greenland, the glacier floats and may quicken, moving at speeds up to two meters an hour. It's the swiftest glacier on the planet, shifting 50 meters daily! I had installed automatic cameras to record it, and for the past five years, we've been monitoring the Eqi glacier in the Bay of Quervain.

– What's the utility of timelapses?

Luc Moreaou: We can't be on site constantly to watch glaciers, and automatic cameras are immensely beneficial! They enable us to witness the glacier's yearly, seasonal, monthly, and daily evolution. The camera stands in as our visual proxy. For the Eqi glacier, we've got photographs taken every 20 years since 1912, and timelapses since 2011, elucidating the glacier's pace (10 meters a day), and its diminishing length (similar to most glaciers globally, with rare exceptions). Then there's the inaccessible terrain for measuring due to excessive crevassing; there, automatic cameras are extraordinarily useful and vital!

« The camera becomes our eyes »

– Capturing photos in such challenging climates must be arduous.

Luc Moreaou: Definitely. First, a consistent frame is required, so the camera must be securely mounted. Lens snow and frost are hindrances, as well as temperature swings which impact battery life. In Greenland, camera units were produced by Femto-St lab in Besançon, with Leica cameras and solar panels for power. These prototypes from 2007, not yet in the marketplace, proved robust: enduring a year at -20° in Greenland, taking a daily photo. Minor technical glitches do occur, but that's expected from prototypes.

– How are these photos utilized?

Luc Moreaou: In glacier research, we map and set markers. With aerial and satellite imagery, we position markers and evaluate the glacier's condition. When the camera-to-landmark distance is precisely known, calculations can commence. Editing timelapse frames also displays glacial dynamics. Glacial speeds can be quantified using image pixels. It's remarkable because one doesn't always perceive glaciers to be swiftly changing. They transform, they 'live,' and sometimes, they shift dramatically!

– What emotions stir when you revisit a glacier to find it has vanished?

Luc Moreaou: Vanished isn't the term, but certainly, glaciers undergo drastic changes in both appearance and morphology. Smaller glaciers can recede swiftly. In the Pyrenees, for instance, within 30 to 40 years, there could be none. Glaciers are sensitive behemoths to variations like climate. They don't seem so, but returning a few months later, you detect they've melted, shrunken or shifted rapidly.

In the Greenland Sea, since installing a camera in 2011, the Eqi glacier has retreated over three kilometers! I had to reposition the camera as the glacier had over-shortened and fell outside the view!

It's astonishing, particularly when glide-editing images and seeing the glacier's time-compressed motion! Certain phenomena are only observable in this way.

– Currently, what significance do glaciers hold regarding global warming?

Luc Moreaou: Glaciers render climate change palpable. Often we reference the intangible: temperature fluctuations, energy differentials, meltwater, greenhouse gases. These are minute and invisible yet incessant. Thus, some skepticism arises! Glaciers experience all this and make the imperceptible perceptible.

– Do you surmise timelapses have heightened public awareness of the climate crisis?

Luc Moreaou: Absolutely! Observing the rapid climate response of natural elements like glaciers, depicted over several years (I produce elongated timelapses), is compelling. Explanations become redundant, one can discern in an expedited fashion the imperceptible unfoldment of the milieu! Nevertheless, it's not so straightforward. A shrinking glacier doesn't instantaneously equate to warming! We've had hot summers for 25 years now. Shrinking results from greater melt losses over snow gains.

However, shrinkage isn't just temperature-driven! It also stems from insufficient snowfall. That was the case in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s, glaciers grew thicker with plentiful snow and cooler summers. Hence, we accentuate 'climate change' over 'warming,' as it also encompasses precipitation shifts. Indeed, snowy winters at warm 0° are preferable over dry and cold ones.


Our gratitude extends to Luc Moreaou for allotting time for this interview, and we regret not capturing our entire dialogue! Should this article resonate with you, please share your thoughts or visit Luc Moreaou's website.

To learn more about how Enlaps' Tikee cameras contribute to environmental research and surveillance, explore Enlaps' official website

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