“Insanely, ridiculously beautiful,” are the words National Geographic photographer James Balog uses to describe the “limitless universe of forms,” that glaciers take as they transform from their solid to liquid states.
The beauty of light, shadow, and colors in the ice – a palette of blue, turquoise and gray – captivated Balog enough to convince him that he could help people understand the magnitude of climate change through his images of ice.
“That’s when I thought, OK, the story is in the ice, somehow,” Balog says in the opening segments of Chasing Ice, a 75-minute documentary film released in late 2012, and nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song (by J. Ralph Feat, performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell). “… There’s a powerful piece of history that’s unfolding in these pictures,” he says.
The epic transformation underway in the Arctic inspired Balog to embark on a mission to create a multi-year photographic record of glacial change called the Extreme Ice Survey. Battling brutal temperatures, winds that can sand blast Plexiglas, wild animals and weather interfering with equipment, and the vulnerability of his own knees (which have endured at least three surgeries), Balog and his team go the distance to capture the shots.
Winner of the “Excellence in Cinematography Award,” for U.S. documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the film’s trailer gives a glimpse of the dramatic changes – unfolding over the course of seasons, instead of centuries – that Balog and his two dozen cameras recorded since his first trip to the Arctic in 2005.
Some glaciers, such as the Solheim Glacier in Iceland, have changed so much, that the crew had a hard time finding their previous camera angles because the landscape was so altered since their last visit.
Known for his previous work producing provocative photographs of wildlife, hunting and people’s relationship with nature, Balog is also a former climate change skeptic who was dubious about computer models. Balog says he initially thought it was improbable that the human race could change the physics and chemistry of the planet.
But the changes he has witnessed on the Greenland ice sheet, as well as in Iceland, Alaska and Montana, where Balog and his crew have stationed their cameras, have since convinced him otherwise. “I had this idea that the most powerful issue of our time is the interaction of humans and nature,” he says in the film.
Highlights of the Chasing Ice include the surreal reflections of moonlight glittering off glaciers, otherworldly scenes of Northern lights viewed through ice formations and nerve-wracking moments when the crew dangles over a moulin (a glacial drain hole of racing melt water), as Balog points his camera into its depths.
Near the end of the film, viewers get the chance to see what unfolded in front of one of the still cameras carefully placed to record the calving glaciers. This sequence of images (rather resembling a massive, melting malted shake) is enough to make the jaw of a young boy drop in amazement, in the film, as he watches footage of the mountains of ice turning into a river.
Lisa Hayden is a blogger for The Nature Conservancy
Featured Photo by: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey, Courtesy of Chasing Ice (In Disko Bay, Greenland, 20-story high icebergs have broken off from the Greenland Ice Sheet to float into the North Atlantic, raising sea level.)
Top Photo by: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey, Courtesy of Chasing Ice (EIS field assistant, Adam LeWinter on NE rim of 150-foot deep Birthday Canyon, atop feature called “Moab,” Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2009. Black deposit in bottom of channel is cryoconite.)
Photo 3 by: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey, Courtesy of Chasing Ice (James Balog hangs off cliff by Columbia Glacier, Alaska to install time-lapse camera.)
Photo 4 by: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey, Courtesy of Chasing Ice (The Solheim Glacier in Iceland in April 2006.)
Photo 5 by: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey, Courtesy of Chasing Ice (The Solheim Glacier in Iceland in February 2009. The line represents how much the glacier changed in nearly three years.)
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