Packing a digital punch

Man looks through telescope at Mendenhall Visitor Center
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director Ron Marvin adjusts a telescope that will transmit images of wildlife, such as far away mountain goats, to a 55-inch screen mounted in the visitor center. (Amy Condra)

This article was originally published in The Juneau Empire

by Amy Condra

Across the lake from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, a mountain goat forges a slow and steady path up a cliff that rises far above the center’s standard vantage point.

“Many of our visitors couldn’t see them,” said the center’s director, Ron Marvin. “So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we could see the goats up on a screen?’”

This summer, it’s possible — telescopes will track these and other animals, and transmit their images, in real-time, to a 55-inch screen.

The screen is one of two that has recently been acquired and mounted by the center, and each will show a variety of graphic

Laurie Craig, an interpreter with the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said that such updated technologies are playing an unprecedented role at the center.Â

“They provide flexibility and an array of new opportunities for educating our visitors,” Craig said. “With large video monitors that are incredibly clear and brilliant, we can show off historic as well as contemporary photos. The blue ice images are spectacular!”

Marvin believes that the two new screens, as well as recent upgrades to various exhibits and to the center’s auditorium, allow information to be conveyed in  relevant and meaningful ways.

For example, one of the center’s new screens is being used to display time-lapse photography that illustrates the movements of the Mendenhall Glacier.

“It’s hard to explain how glaciers work,” Marvin said. “They are always moving forward, then receding. These pictures help people see that glaciers are not only going back, they’re getting there as they retreat.”

“People are so visual,” he said.

The impact of information conveyed in visual ways is exactly the point of Extreme Ice Survey, a photography project that provided, free of charge, the Mendenhall Glacier time-lapse sequences.

Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) designs, installs and programs custom-made time-lapse cameras at glaciers around the world in order to effectively communicate climate changes to the public and to policymakers.

The Mendenhall Glacier project has cost EIS $2 million so far; funding support for the project has come from the National Geographic Society, NASA, Nikon and the National Science Foundation, as well as from private foundations and individual contributors.

The project involved the installation of three cameras in May 2007. Another was put up in September 2008.Â

Sites for the cameras were chosen by James Balog of EIS, according to Sport, Operations Manager for EIS, with support from environmental scientists at the University of Alaska Southeast and at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The EIS cameras shoot one frame an hour during every daylight hour, yielding about 4,500 images per camera per year. As of November 2010, 44,339 images were taken at Mendenhall East, 41,188 at Mendenhall West and 20,158 at Mendenhall West 2.

These images were then used to create a presentation that graphically shows the Mendenhall Glacier’s retreat, which according to the U.S. Forest Service, is at a rate of 100 to 150 feet per year.

Not all of the center’s most visually striking displays are electronic, Marvin said.

“This is a little more low-tech,” he said of a panoramic map of the Juneau Icefield that, like EIS’ time-lapse photography, also depicts how climate change is affecting the glacier’s movements.

The panoramic map, he says, regularly attracts groups of visitors who are intrigued by an aerial view that most of us would never otherwise see.

“Some people don’t relate to maps very well,” Marvin said. “But this packs a visual impact.”

The map was added to the visitor center’s attractions in June 2010, and was created by Eric Knight.

Knight received a $2,000 grant for the project from the 2008 Banff Mountain Grants program, which awards funds for projects that, according to its website, “creatively communicate the environment, human heritage, inspiration, and adventure of the world’s mountain places to a broad public audience.”

Knight said that Marvin worked with him throughout the early stages of the project.

“Ron Marvin was brought in early on to make some crucial decisions about the general format of the map, and how it would fit into the space he had available,” Knight said. “He continued to support and review the project as it took shape.”

And, according to Knight, Eran Hood, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at University of Alaska Southeast, produced the glacier change projections used on the map, using estimates based on the most conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections for Southeast Alaska.

Knight was responsible for the background imagery and graphics work, using raw, public domain satellite data from the U.S. and Canadian governments.Â

Data for this part of Alaska isn’t as accurate as it is for other parts of the country, Knight said.

“This is due to a variety of reasons, such as cloud cover, reflections off of snow and ice, lots of land with low population density, and high latitude,” he said.Â

So, Knight added, “most of what we used had to be modified and improved upon in order to make it more accurate and believable … and this was all done manually.”

Creating the map took hundreds of hours. Most of that time was spent digitally drawing in landforms on the computer with a graphics tablet.

“The most interesting part of these projects for me is always the way they combine elements of art and science,” Knight said. “Objective technical data and images can be very beautiful in their own way, but to make something that actually looks right at a glance, and which functions well as a map, requires a surprising amount of subjectivity. There’s a lot of noisy detail that needs to be quieted down into something that reads clearly, without losing that complex beauty completely.”

“To put it another way,” he said, “this map needed to balance the way things actually look with the way you think they should look.”

Marvin, who supervised the final formatting, printing and installation of Knight’s map at the visitor center, continues to seek out ways of visually engaging visitors.

The center has recently upgraded its theatre equipment, trading in a screen from 1999 for one with “a much finer resolution, a brighter image and a widescreen format,” Marvin said.

The screen is part of an automated theater system that includes a projector capable of playing high-definition DVD and Blu-Ray productions, a surround-sound speaker system and touchpad operations.

And, Marvin said, a new movie for the center is currently being created by North Shore Productions, to replace the 1998 film that is currently playing for visitors.

The new system was funded with stimulus money, Marvin said.

“When we started out, I was rather skeptical, saying we didn’t need a new screen,” he said. “But now, if I had to do it again, I would definitely do it.”

Marvin said other upgrades to the center were paid for using entrance fees collected from summer visitors.

“We had about 408,000 cruise ship visitors in 2009,” he said, “and that doesn’t count independent travelers and locals.”

The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was built in 1962, serving primarily as a place where people could, according to the Forest Service website, “get out of the rain and look at the glacier.”

Renovations to the center took place between 1997 and 1999, to accommodate a growing number of visitors and an expanding interest in natural attractions.

The center’s mission to inform and entertain people continues to manifest itself in ever-evolving ways, Marvin said.

“We can do all sorts of things now,” he said, “that when they were doing renovations in 1999, they hadn’t even thought of yet!”