If anyone doubted the existence of global warming, they need look no further than the documentary “Chasing Ice,” which, via time-lapse photography, depicts glaciers that are vanishing at an alarming rate. Premiering on National Geographic Channel on April 19, the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winner for cinematography focuses on mountaineer, photographer, and author James Balog, who founded the Extreme Ice Survey to study glaciers and placed 26 time-lapse cameras in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and Montana to capture crumbling glacial ice. Balog took time out from his speaking engagements to answer questions about the film and climate change.
JB: Shrinking glaciers are the canary in the global coalmine. They are the most visible, tangible manifestations of climate change on the planet today. Real-world visual evidence has a unique ability to convey the reality and immediacy of global warming to a worldwide audience, to celebrate the otherworldly beauty of ice-cloaked landscapes and to help scientists better understand the mechanisms of glacial retreat. When people encounter EIS images—whether in an exhibit, on the Internet, or in a slide presentation—the response is typically immediate and dramatic. It is the first step toward caring about a distant landscape most of us will never experience in person, connecting the dots between what happens far away, and the rising sea levels, extreme weather and other climate-related issues closer to home.
How and when did you get the idea to make “Chasing Ice?” How did you go about making it happen?
JB: We actually did not intend to make the film. The film grew organically out of the Extreme Ice Survey. It really was an afterthought. I thought it would be valuable to document the field action and we might use some of the footage on the Web site or in my lectures. It took Jeff [Orlowski, the director] a year and a half to convince me that we should make a movie out of it. It wasn’t until he cut a trailer that I realized that the potential was there and that he just might be able to pull it off.
What were the main challenges you faced during filming? Logistical, practical, weather?
JB: All of the above. I originally thought I could just go out and buy time-lapse equipment off the shelf. But, I needed a system that could withstand minus 40-degree temperatures, deep snow, winds to 160 MPH, rain, sleet, rock falls. Plus, many of the cameras would be in locations so remote that they couldn’t be visited with any regularity. I should have spent a year doing the research and development on this. I didn’t have the funding to do a year’s worth of R&D.; But I really felt the pressure of time. I had been out to a lot of the sites where we eventually put the cameras--I had been out there the previous year, 2006--and I had marked a lot of my camera positions, and [in 2007] I felt like, ‘I want to get out there now and pick up this story where I left off last year and keep it moving. I don’t want to spend a year testing cameras.’ In hindsight that was the right choice, because it got us going, and it got the record moving. As a practical matter, though, it created just horrendous stress.
Adding to that, you were climbing on a damaged knee.
JB: I had already had two knee surgeries before this project started. I chewed up one hiking into a rock climb in the ‘90s, and I chewed another one up working on the tree project in 2003. The cartilage had sort of been repaired, it seemed like everything was steady state, and then on about year two we were carrying very heavy packs--I was carrying a double load, because one of my partners had just had back surgery and he couldn't carry any weight. I don't know what it weighed but it was a lot. Going downhill on loose, rubbly terrain with that kind of pack on was really grinding up the knee cartilage. I had surgery in the fall of '09. And then three months later I was just hell-bent on going to Iceland and getting these night shots of the Aurora Borealis and icebergs. Three months was too soon; the surgery hadn't healed.
Any close calls, brushes with danger on the shoot?
JB: There’s a scene in the film where we lose an engine in a helicopter. What you don’t see is that we also lost the second engine. Going into this the biggest fear was with the aircraft. Prior to this project I had had several near-death experiences in light aircraft in other situations. They were incredibly scary experiences in aircraft, helicopters and small planes, and I am acutely aware of how dangerous those damn things are. You're always worried about the human error that might bring you down when you're over some horrendous fjord full of icebergs and you look down at some of this stuff and you realize, 'Man, if the engine fails here we can't land flat and we will crash.' I just find the equipment unnerving and I hope like hell the projects going forward will avoid the aircraft business.
How frustrating was it when you found the cameras were damaged and hadn't recorded?
JB: I was freaking out, as you can see in the film. I wasn’t so much exasperated by the fact that one camera wasn’t working, but was in fact exasperated that the following week we were going to be in Greenland, with 12 of those same units and five people, with a huge financial commitment and a lot of helicopter time that we had booked. The technology was untested. As I’m standing at the edge of that glacier in Alaska, I’m realizing, ‘Damn, this doesn’t work.’ As it turns out, all the cameras we installed in Greenland worked flawlessly.
The footage is dramatic. Have any global warming deniers seen it? Have you changed any minds?
JB: I have been gratified to hear the former head of exploration for Texaco tell me, ‘I thought this climate change business was BS, but now I understand it.’ A Shell Oil employee quit his job and went into sustainable energy. And a retired oil and gas pipeline executive told his daughter: ‘Most of your environmentalist friends seem like wackos to me, but this guy, James, and his pictures, I believe what he says.’
Update us on Extreme Ice Survey -- is the project ongoing?
JB: We are looking at expanding the EIS time-lapse camera network into the Southern Hemisphere, funding permitting. We will deploy cameras in several sites in Antarctica and in South America. The cameras currently out there will stay out there as long as we have the funding to maintain them. This project doesn’t end just because the film came out. We plan to keep the observations of the world going indefinitely. I intend to continue to look at human-caused change in the natural world--it’s really what I’ve been photographing already for the past 30 years. And going forward, I’ve got a couple big ideas that are in gestation right now for continuing to try to make innovative, artistic, compelling interpretations of the world as it’s changing around us. I will continue doing self-directed projects through our new non-profit, Earth Vision Trust. I feel a great obligation to preserve a pictorial memory of vanishing landscapes for the people of the future.
After seeing “Chasing Ice,” what do you hope audiences are motivated to do?
JB: As I mention in the film, ‘Do what you can with the tools that you have.’ Use your voice. Use your skills. Use your money. Use your power. The path forward is being traveled by individuals committed to improving their own lives and communities, by school children who can’t stand the inaction of their elders, by innovative entrepreneurs and corporations eager to make or save money, by military generals seeking to protect their country and their soldiers and by political leaders of courage and vision. We are all complicit in the problem and we can all be participants in the solution.
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