Seeing Is Believing

By Emily Schwing ’05
Ken Tape ’99 is amassing a collection of photographs that provide irrefutable evidence that climate change has affected the Alaskan Arctic.


Ken Tape ’99 began traveling along Alaska’s North Slope in 2003 to recreate photos of the area that were taken in the early 1900s. At the time, he was working on a master’s degree in geology and a PhD in biology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and he wanted to document how Alaska’s Arctic landscape was changing.

“You can go back to the same spot year after year and think it looks exactly the same,” says Tape. “That’s misleading. It is changing, but over the span of a human lifetime, the changes are subtle.”

Tape majored in geology at Carleton, where he developed an ability to perceive change on a monumental scale. “I don’t consider change on a human timescale,” he says. “If you compare my photos with photos taken a hundred years ago, you get a sense of what the passage of time looks like.”

Out of Tape’s work came first a book, Then and Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape, and later a traveling museum exhibit of the same title. He developed the exhibit in 2010 with the help of Mareca Guthrie ’03, who is curator of fine arts at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, where the exhibit had its first showing. Although they both grew up in Fairbanks and attended the same college, “it wasn’t until I came back to Fairbanks that we realized our Carleton connection,” says Tape.“The exhibit wouldn’t have happened without Mareca’s involvement.”

“Ken’s work is a great example of the crossover between art and science,” says Guthrie. “Our museum was a perfect fit because our focus is on fine art, cultural history, and natural history.”

The exhibit was a natural outgrowth of the book, says Tape. “I thought that large-format images and spherical panoramas would be easier for the public to digest in a museum than in a book.”

While mixing art and science isn’t a simple undertaking, it’s a challenge Tape was willing to embrace. He believes that communicating complicated scientific topics to a general audience is best achieved through creative outlets. Nor are scientific journals the best choice for presenting the kind of visual data he collects, Tape says.

Both the book and the exhibit rely heavily on repeat photography, which doesn’t allow much room for debate about the effects of climate change on the landscape. “My work focuses on how the Arctic is changing and the link to temperature, rather than on who or what is responsible for the warming,” he says. “In most scientific research, the interpretation of the data is left to scientists, whereas repeat photography leaves interpretation open to almost anyone. There’s an intimacy with the data that empowers people and breaks down some of the barriers that have been erected around this topic.”

Now an ecologist in the University of Alaska’s Institute of Northern Engineering in Fairbanks, Tape works on a laundry list of science projects: water balance and plants; the effect of climate change on wetlands, invertebrates, and shorebirds; expansion of the moose population in northern Alaska; and the link between climate and prehistoric culture. “I’m perfectly happy with the title ‘jack of all trades and master of none,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I think my Carleton background has something to do with the fact that I’d rather have breadth than depth. There are different models for succeeding in science.”

Carleton students were exposed to the Tape model for success last fall when he returned to campus to teach a class on climate change and northern ecosystems. “We’re doing a lot of cutting-edge research in Alaska,” he says, “so it was great to share our work with Carleton students and the wider community.”

He also brought the Then and Now exhibit, which was on display in the Perlman Teaching Museum through fall term. That its popularity extended beyond the Carleton campus surprised him. “At the opening, every seat was filled,” he says. “You give a talk at the University of Alaska, and you’re just another guy who studies climate change in the Arctic. We found a willing audience in Northfield.”

Tape believes the warm reception is due, in part, to the photography itself.  “I’ve heard visitors say, ‘Most of the dialogue on climate change comes across as rhetoric, but this exhibit is authentic,’ ” he explains. “Compared to most scientific data, the photographs are refreshingly objective and interpretable.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, Tape wants to broaden the scope and content of the exhibit, which was at Amherst this spring and will travel to Colgate in the fall. “Its focus is really Arctic Alaska right now,” he says. “I’d like to make it a circum-Arctic exhibit. And it’s mostly about landscape change, but I want to bring in wildlife and other components that will be more accessible to people in other parts of the country who can’t relate to little bushes and faraway glaciers.


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