When photographer Paul Zizka set off to skate the length of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, he knew it would be a great day out no matter what he found. For one, skating is an exhilarating way to access the backcountry. It requires perfect conditions: thick enough ice and a smooth, snow-free surface. When the conditions aligned on that frigid January day, it would make for a memorable outing, covering about 30 miles round-trip on the frozen lake.
Toward the far end of Minnewanka, he stopped in his tracks, astounded. A sea of frozen methane bubbles had appeared beneath his blades. The surface was smooth, yet through the ice, he could see layers of bubbles trapped in the ice—a 3D work of art. Some were perfectly round, others more abstract, like wax in a lava lamp frozen in place. He’d seen these bubbles in images before but had never laid eyes on them himself.
“I remember being on all fours for a long time, just looking at things and marveling at the geometry,” says Zizka, a mountain landscape and adventure photographer based in Banff, Canada. “I was taken aback by how unsettling it was. Beyond the bubbles, you could see rocks at the bottom of the lake below and the color of the lake shining through.”
He returned to that same location a few days later with friends. He wanted to share the experience, but for photographic purposes, he knew it would be advantageous to have other people to use as models as he set off to capture the bubbles in photos. He came away with compelling images that are still among his personal favorites.
Lake Minnewanka was the first of many lakes in the Canadian Rockies that he has explored in search of the phenomenon. Each autumn season, his search for bubbles has become a kind of annual pilgrimage, and each year his guessing gets a bit more accurate as he becomes better acquainted with the conditions necessary for the features to materialize.
The Source Of Methane Bubbles
When dead organic matter, such as animals, fallen trees and leaves, ends up submerged in water, bacteria below consume it and excrete methane gas.
“Bubbles rise up from sediments, hit the bottom of downward-growing lake ice, and freeze into place,” explains Dr. Katey Walter Anthony, a professor and aquatic ecosystem ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Dr. Walter Anthony studies the bubbles to determine their potential role in global warming as methane—a greenhouse gas—is released into the atmosphere in increasingly greater quantities. The phenomenon has been witnessed in many lakes in western Canada, in Russia and Greenland, as well as several states, including Alaska, Minnesota, Wyoming and South Dakota.
While the presence of more methane isn’t a promising one for the climate, the effect it creates in the ice is nothing short of otherworldly. Zizka puts the frozen bubbles on par with the aurora borealis, another phenomenon he has dedicated a lot of time to photographing over the years.
“The bubbles never get old,” he says. “They are always displaying different patterns, shapes and depth. It’s a new experience every year and, for the landscape photographer, a fresh canvas.”
Finding these bubbles each year is not as simple as merely waiting for the lakes to freeze over. There is often a short window to see them before the snow falls and the bubbles are hidden for the rest of the season. That window may last three months or perhaps only a week. Precipitation on top of the lake’s surface or a stretch of warm weather can affect the clarity of the ice and cloud the view down to the bubbles. When you time it right, however, the results are magic.
Creative & Practical Challenges
For photographers, the frozen bubbles can be a delight to shoot—and also a challenge. They tend to be found in windy places, as wind is essential in keeping the lakes free of snow. Photographers can expect cold, uncomfortable conditions, Zizka explains.
“It’s not unusual for people’s tripods or backpacks to start floating across the surface of the lake while they’re busy shooting,” he said. “I’ve seen that multiple times.”
For Zizka, the frozen fingers are worth it. The methane bubbles are so special that he takes his workshop participants to photograph them when the conditions align. Half the fun, he says, is seeing them for himself, and half the fun is seeing other people’s reactions when they get on the lakes. “They turn into little kids and start crawling around for hours. I pretty much have to drag them back up to the road because they just don’t want to leave.”
Compositionally, the effect offers a lot of variety for photographers. “The bubbles will appeal to any landscape photographer because they are great for abstract scenes, for tight, intimate shots, top-down shots and, of course, the wide, epic landscapes that a lot of people are after,” Zizka says.
He also likes the challenge of coming up with new ways to photograph them. In recent years, Zizka has incorporated artificial lighting and the use of an underwater housing to find fresh angles. One of his most memorable shoots was the first time he discovered how the bubbles responded to lighting at night, such as a headlamp or a Lume Cube face-down on the ice.
“It still blows my mind that you can use a different color or change the angle of the light slightly in order to get a completely different lighting effect,” he says.
Zizka is already conjuring up other ideas, too. “I haven’t photographed the bubbles with the aurora borealis yet,” he explains, noting how perfect the conditions will need to be to make that happen. As for his other ideas, he is keeping those a secret. Thanks to social media, the bubbles have become enormously popular among photographers.
His experiments help him feel excited, creatively speaking, throughout the process. It’s a tactic he encourages all photographers to adopt when they feel like they are getting stuck after shooting more obvious compositions.
“Experimenting is such a fun part of photography,” he says. “Try to get a different perspective beyond what you’re naturally drawn to in the first place.”
It’s fun and also very effective when nature provides such an extraordinary subject—and such a short window to capture it.
Tips For Photographing Methane Bubbles
Zizka offers these tips for shooting a tricky foreground subject that may compete with the background.
- Get low. Zizka recommends getting way down to lake level and using a wide-angle lens to exaggerate the size of the bubbles. This will help them to compete with a more dominant background, such as mountains.
- Shoot vertically. Many landscape photographers tend to shoot horizontally. Put the bubbles in the foreground and shoot vertically. This will add depth to your images and make them more engaging to look at.
- Find a group. As nice as the massive swatches of bubbles are, they can clutter up compositions. Find a smaller concentration of bubbles to give you a clean foreground, so that no elements need to be cut out of the frame. This will also help your image to look organized and intentional.
Flames & Falling In: Safety With Methane Bubbles
Methane-filled bubbles are indeed flammable! Scroll through YouTube, and you’ll find videos of people poking the bubbles and lighting them with a match. This may look like fun, but be cautious—the flames can burn higher than you think.
Also, as bubbles often appear in the early season, caution with the ice is crucial. “Folks should be careful that the ice is sufficiently safe to hold them before venturing out,” advises Dr. Katey Walter Anthony. She also suggests skaters have a buddy system, rescue rope and change of clothes in case of falling through the ice.
See more of Paul Zizka’s work at zizka.ca.