Sculptural, architectural and stunningly beautiful. The world’s glaciers are one of nature’s most impressive and enduring backdrops — epic in size and grandeur. They are also a massive, undeniable casualty of climate change. Now, internationally acclaimed photographer James Balog has captured hundreds of thousands of majestic glacier images that serve as unprecedented visual evidence — grabbing at the gut and allowing us to visualize the change firsthand.
CHASING ICE, winner of best cinematography at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, documents Balog’s three-year quest to capture the natural world in transformation. Placing 26 time-lapse cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana, Balog’s lenses bear witness to the tension between the huge, enduring power of the glaciers and their ultimate fragility as they crumble piece by piece into the ocean. Compressing years into 90 arresting minutes, the film offers a breath-taking — and haunting — visual retrospective of glaciers receding at unprecedented speeds, and massive pieces of ice sheets breaking off into the ocean.
Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) team have launched an ambitious plan to create a comprehensive record of unprecedented geologic changes with amazing results. His cameras capture glaciers as they recede more kilometers in the past 10 years than in the previous century. In just one hour, the team captures a 450-meter ice block calving, or breaking off, into the ocean below. And, in Chasing Ice’s most striking sequence, Balog’s team captures a mammoth ice block the size of lower Manhattan tumble into the watery depths — the largest calving event ever caught on film.
As EIS team member Adam Lewinter puts it, “The only way you can try to put it into scale with human reference is if you imagine Manhattan. All the sudden, all those buildings just start to rumble and quake and peel off and just fall over … and roll around. This whole massive city, just breaking apart in front of your eyes.”
A scientist whose youthful brashness paved the way for an acclaimed photography career, James Balog finds that his EIS is no easy task. Deploying cameras across the brutal Arctic by helicopter, canoe and dogsled, delicate electronics must withstand hurricane-force winds, -40ºC temperatures, blizzards and falling rock. With the aid of National Geographic engineers, Balog and the EIS team develop a unique time-lapse system, allowing cameras to shoot frames every daylight hour for three years. To document Chasing Ice in action, Balog probes deep into the underworld of the ice — rappelling into crevasses and scaling vast ice canyons, carved out by raging torrents of meltwater. Along the way, Balog comes face-to-face with his own limitations as severe conditions take their toll. Interviews from his team, family and peers illustrate how strongly Balog feels about this issue, and Chasing Ice captures his raw emotion as he sees pain set in, technology fail and glaciers recede right before his eyes.
Once a climate change skeptic, Balog questioned humans’ capability of changing the basic physics and chemistry of the entire planet, but the EIS has left him without a doubt. In addition to its effects on glaciers, climate change also intensifies the impact of hurricanes and typhoons, leaving more high water along coastlines and pushing water farther inland during big storms.
“The sea level rise that will happen in my daughter’s lifetimes, will be somewhere between a foot and a half and three feet. Minimum. That doesn’t sound like a lot if you live in the Rocky Mountains, but if you live down in Chesapeake Bay, along the Gulf Coast of the United States, in the Ganges flood plain — that matters a lot. It matters in China, it matters in Indonesia. A minimum of 150 million people will be displaced — that’s like approximately half the size of the United States. And all of those people are going to be flushed out and have to move somewhere else,” says Balog in the film.
“When my daughters, Simone and Emily, look at me 25 or 30 years from now and say, what were you doing when, when … global warming was happening and you guys knew what was coming down the road. I want to be able to say, ‘Guys, I was doing everything I knew how to do.’”
Chasing Ice Airs this