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Film Review: 'Chasing Ice'

Nature photog James Balog gives a disturbing look at receding glaciers

Bill Hatcher/Nat Geo Image Collection
James Balog, photographer/filmmaker behind "Chasing Ice"

To say something moves at a “glacial pace” used to be an insult. Not anymore: The new documentary film Chasing Ice provides clear evidence that, these days, a glacial pace has violently sped up.
 
Taking us deep into the glaciers of Greenland, Alaska and Iceland, the movie delivers a compelling argument for accelerating our response to the steady accumulation of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. When I recently saw the movie in Denver, everyone in the theater remained in their seats through the blizzard of credits. How often does that happen?
 
The film focuses on the work of James Balog, who took up the more visceral work of outdoor photography in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains in the 1970s after earning his master’s in geomorphology.
 
As a wildlife photographer, Balog has achieved great success. His images of endangered species were used for a series of U.S. postal stamps. Later, he undertook a project to document the world’s tallest trees, not something that can be done in a studio or standing at a safe distance. To capture these images he had to adapt his mountain climbing skills to climbing trees.
 
I first heard about Balog’s new project in 2009 when he spoke at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. A year or so later, I saw him at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, this time with images from Greenland. The photos were disturbing.
 
Balog says his primary ambition was to make climate change visual and visceral. To do this, he mounted dozes of time-lapse cameras near glaciers to record them as they withered. The sheer logistics of bolting boxes to rocks on the side of mountains overlooking the rivers of ice looks daunting. As he did this in Alaska and Montana, in Iceland and Greenland, you see and hear the frustration of his early miscalculations. But the evidence piles up in the film, and it validates Balog’s mission.
 
This work also became an adventure of high order. Literally. Although Greenland’s giant ice cap reaches elevations of 10,000 feet, the melting water has created canyons with unknown serpentine depths. Into one of these sinister, but captivating, chasms, Balog and his team descended via climbing ropes, as if bravely advancing towards the snout of a dragon. Watching these scenes, perched on the edge of my seat, I thought back to the dozens of mountain-climbing films I’d seen over the years. This work by Balog, who is now over 60 and struggles to walk on badly damaged knees, strikes me as comparable to the very best of the mountaineering genre.
 
The notion that these are extraordinary times is reinforced by a sequence capturing a giant glacier the size of lower Manhattan calving off an ice field. As the ice, taller than the Empire State Building, slides into the water, its fall feels cataclysmic, and Balog, as well as the various speakers introduced in the film, assure us that it felt that way to them, too.
 
Along with the rapidly vanishing ice of the Arctic Ocean, a correlation—and probable causation—seems inescapable between the diminishing ice field and greenhouse gases. For those of us with children or grandchildren, seeing documentation like this can leave you feeling helpless and discouraged about the future. That was my viewing companion’s response.
 
It made me recall the first time I saw Balog’s slides in Aspen. During the question and answer period, Balog’s pessimism was challenged by Dan Nocera, an M.I.T. chemist working to create chemical surfaces that will more effectively translate solar heat into electrical energy.
 
The men agreed about the desperate challenge of climate change—perhaps the defining issue of our times—but Nocera, who believes solar energy is our only hope to get past our dependence on fossil fuels, was more optimistic. He said that we still had a chance to cut our destructive pollution in time to avert the worst that might happen.

Balog's photos and all other rational evidence argue for immediate action, similar to our response to Pearl Harbor in 1941. Instead, we drag our feet. It's easy to be pessimistic. Myself, I tend toward optimism—but that, like religion, requires a leap of faith.
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This story first appeared in High Country News.

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