THIS QUIETLY JARRING documentary about National Geographic photographer James Balog’s work explores the challenge of bringing climate change into focus. In search of a seductive, meaningful display of global warming’s impact, Balog realized “the story is in the ice, somehow,” and created the Extreme Ice Survey (extremeicesurvey.org) in 2005.
He launched the project with a small team, who built two dozen automated camera rigs to endure Arctic punishment, and then trekked to remote shoot locations in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana to set them up. Their aim, to collect time-lapsed image sequences of glaciers receding over six-month periods, was certainly no walk in the park. But once they’d overcome the exploding batteries, falling rocks, circuit failures and snow burials that plagued their first season, the results were staggering. Sharing them has since become the next phase of Balog’s mission.
It’s impossible to properly describe the sight of Alaska’s Columbia glacier retreating four kilometers in three years. In this sense, the film completely realizes Balog’s gut-wrenching, spellbinding vision: to communicate our situation visually, like no words or hockey stick graph ever could. Director Orlowski adds other practical and understated material, probing the cryoconite holes that melt giant ice sheets, rappelling into spectacular moulins and panning vast landscapes with Balog’s crew in view to convey the daunting scale. The film also captures the largest glacial calving event ever caught on tape – a Lower Manhattan-sized hunk of ice collapsing in a frozen sea.
In one of many candid scenes, Balog talks about the “tension between the huge enduring power of these glaciers, and their fragility.” His hope is that Chasing Ice’s imagery will move the rest of us enough to embrace a solution.
Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, United States: Exposure LLC, 2012, 75 minutes.
This review originally appeared in In Defence of Science, issue 38.5.
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