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'Chasing Ice' and Capturing Climate Change: Q&A with James Balog

A photographer turns to retreating glaciers to document the reality of global warming


There is a moment in Chasing Ice, the new documentary film, when environmental photographer James Balog almost loses it, and rightly so. He is perched on a cold, windy ridge above a glacier field in Arctic Alaska, and the enormity, and maybe the folly, of what he's doing finally sinks in. He's been trying for years to capture on camera the ongoing decimation of the earth's glaciers in real time. Now a cameraperhaps the whole network of themisn't working, and he doesn't know why. But why should these unproven, custom-rigged cameras work, sitting out here for months in the harsh Arctic elements? Nothing like this has ever been tried before. It's a moment that we can all relate to on some level, especially former mountaineers like Balog. Do you give up, or take the next step?  His voice cracks, the tears rise, the emotions pour out…and he moves on.

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That scene captures, in a few minutes, the essence of Balog's recent career. An award-winning photographer, he dreams up expansive, risky—some would say audacious—projects that he's passionate about and, with a mad scientist's (or artist's) zeal and a buddhist monk's patience, sets about inventing ways to complete them. Chasing Ice tells the behind-the-scenes story of Balog's five year project, the Extreme Ice Survey, to document the global glacial meltdown due to climate change. The film, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a moving and vivid chronicle of Balog's efforts, and already this year it's won numerous awards at major film festivals.

The project took him and a team of young assistants to remote parts of Arctic Greenland and Alaska, where they set up networks of automated still cameras under harsh conditions to capture individual glaciers’ retreat. The resulting time-lapse photography is an unequivocal, yet beautiful record of how quickly the earth’s climate is warming—and the film itself is a tribute to the commitment and creativity that Balog brought to the project.

We interviewed Balog this weekend after the film's premiere in New York, which was still recovering from its own climate-related disaster, Hurricane Sandy. The film will premiere in select cities over the next few weeks, and a companion book of Balog's EIS photography, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, has just been published by Rizzoli.

Balog
 EIS Founder & Director James Balog at Jøkulsårlon, Iceland
Photo:Svavar Jónatansson/Extreme Ice Survey

Chasing Ice was released at almost exactly the same time that Sandy hit the East Coast. What was your reaction? Did it increase your sense of urgency about climate change?
Yes, Sandy certainly put climate change back front and center as a conversation topic in the United States. We can’t attribute that one storm to climate change, but it’s part of a pattern of extreme events that we can definitely attribute to climate change. The hurricane, along with drought, along with the extreme fire seasons coming from drought—all of that is part of the pattern that was predicted and anticipated decades ago by scientists. The predictions that people were making, the kinds of things they said we should be looking for during the period of climate change, that’s exactly what’s coming to pass, and Hurricane Sandy seems to be part of that pattern.

Do you sense more concern from audiences about climate change from when you started screening the film earlier this year to the last couple of weeks?
Oh, absolutely. There’s a noticeable intake of breath in the room when people see the film starting with Hurricane Irene and some of these other extreme weather events from last year. You know, literally I was screening the film in San Diego the night that Sandy hit the East Coast, and people were very aware of what was happening as those pictures came on screen. And it was intense. And here in New York we’ve done 10 screenings and all of these audiences were on the edge of their seats because of this issue. They’re very sensitive, very engaged, very interested in what we have to say about these weather patterns, these climate patterns, and how they relate to the target solutions. 

You've always been goal-oriented, going back to your days as a mountain climber. And your projects—to take formal portraits of endangered species, and to capture the essence of huge trees, and now to document the death of glaciers—are incredibly ambitious. Do you ask yourself, ‘What's the hardest project I could possibly tackle?’ Is there something about the audacity of it that inspires you, that you need to push against?
In other words, where does this neurotic drive come from? Part of it is that if it’s been done, and done well, it doesn’t interest me. I’m basically looking for photographic “first ascents.” That’s what I came to realize about 20 years ago. This is kind of the climber’s mentality. I don’t want to be doing routes that have been done 3,000 times; I want to go out and find new summits to climb, and that’s one of the main motivations.  

And then, the other part of it is, I’ll get hooked on ideas that seem really, really compelling, and I’ll get engaged by the idea, and in all cases realize that the idea is going to require the invention of new approaches or new technology. And in all cases I don’t have the pre-existing skills to execute those approaches. Since the late 1980s, when I dreamt up the project that became [the endangered species project] “Survivors,” I would spend some time—months to years—resisting the project because of inward groaning about not wanting to put myself through the ordeal that the new technology was going to mandate. Eventually I would sort of grimace and groan and say to myself, alright, the idea isn’t going to let me go, so I’d better figure out how to deal with it and how to do it. So, invariably, I wind up being challenged by the execution of these things, and if it's actually a really complicated, really technical project the way that one was, I just continue to be pushed by a good idea, and figuring out how I can pull it off.  

And that’s got to be satisfying as well as torturous, right?
Absolutely, it’s both. I’m proud of myself for pulling off what I have all these years, especially the Extreme Ice Survey, but it’s really a form of self-torture, and if I didn’t have some inherent masochistic steak in me from climbing, if I didn’t have the celebration of masochism, just an ingrained habit of it, I couldn’t do this.

I love how you bring scientific curiosity, practical technology and art together in your projects and your photography. What's the most important part of it to you? What do you enjoy the most?
I remain most captivated by exploring things freshly, if not for the first time. And I also enjoy the being outdoors, really, the physical process of being outdoors, which has made the last year such an ordeal. I’ve hardly been outside shooting anything, but I’ve been traveling a lot, and it’s all about outreach and building the 501(c)(3) [non-profit] side, around fundraising to build awareness—and painfully little photography and painfully little adventure travel. That’s kind of tearing me up, and I was just looking at my belly in the mirror last night and thinking I’ve never had a pouch above my belt line the way way I do now. It’s just gotta stop.

You’re trying to make climate change something noticeable and impactful on a visceral level. What is the single fact or phenomenon that’s been most dramatic for you?
I think the big takeaway point has been how fast these glaciers are retreating. Regardless of what the percentage change is or isn’t, its just the rapidity of the retreat. I really had not realized how quickly these big, immortal features of the landscape could change and I think very very few people did. You know, there are glaciologists out there, but they are one zillionth of one percent of the population, and in fact I remember very specifically being out on the Greenland ice sheet in 2006 with scientists, and I remember a conversation in the tent with one of those guys. This is when I was just learning about all the glaciology, and I remember him saying, ‘Well, you know, these glaciers are these big static objects, and they might change on a century-long basis, but they don’t do that much, they just sit here.' Well, just a year later we were out there with time-lapse cameras, and we showed that this wasn’t the case. They were changing on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. And certainly over the course of a year or a decade, they undergo huge amounts of change. And that’s the groundbreaking realization for me that comes out of this.  

When we see you out in the field under extreme conditions with a network of failed cameras, for a moment the viewer thinks, 'Well, that's it. How could these things sit out in Arctic Alaska for months and still function?' Did you ever think the whole project was doomed? 
Well, I knew we’d get through it, but the pessimistic side of me was saying 'Oh, we’re going to fail, we’re doomed, it’s all over, let’s all crawl off and die.' But the scene in the film where I’m crying and upset that the camera doesn’t work wasn’t just the frustration about that camera. What doesn’t come across in film is what was about to happen a week later, when we were going to go to Greenland. We’d already shipped 12 cameras there on the Air Force flights, and I was committed to somewhere around a $100,000 field expedition to deploy all those cameras. I had made the commitment, the plane tickets had all been bought for the team, we were in motion already. We were going, the cameras were in Greenland, and yet at that moment, standing on that glacier in Alaska, I didn’t know if I had a system that would work, and I was about to go down a $100,000 rathole. And the realization that we could miss that whole season in the field because the system was unreliable.

You've been at this a long time now, and I've got to think that the skill and confidence you’ve gained to solve these big creative and technical problems is something you can only acquire over time. And, of course, you work with things—like giant trees and glaciers—that are around for hundreds or thousands of years. What advice do you have for people who are just starting out in careers? What are the biggest lessons you've learned?
One of them is that you have to look at the big picture. The next one is that you have to take big risks. And the other one is that we’re in a period of rapidly accelerating change in these careers, too, and the characteristics of these careers, and what a young person just entering this field in this decade is doing now is going to be radically different from what he’s going to be doing in the next decade and the next. And I don’t mean that just in terms of the subject, but in terms of technical approaches and new outlets for the work. We’re in a period that’s changing a lot faster than even glaciers are, because of this acceleration of the technological curve we’re in. So you have to be smart, and I think it's important to know about something other than the technicalities of being a photographer or a filmmaker or a writer. You absolutely have to know something deep about some sector of the world. I think people would be better off getting degrees in fields that interest them, and getting minors in communications tools. That’s what enabled me to be able to do what I’ve done. I had this deep interest in the earth sciences, and somehow all of these projects have grown out of these interests, rather than fiddling with the camera. 

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