This summer, the Arctic lost an area of sea ice equivalent to the state of Maine every day for a month. When the meltback was over in September, the Arctic shed an area of ice the size of Canada and Texas combined — a 40 percent decline over the historical average.
And just last month, scientists reported that the pace of ice loss in Greenland is five times greater than it was in the 1990′s, a development they called “extraordinary.”
Some predict ice-free summers in the Arctic as soon as 2016. Yet, these changes have gotten only modest coverage in the press. Even as scientists documented the “astonishing” melt in the Arctic this summer, television news outlets covered Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan’s workout routine three times more than record sea ice loss.
Why aren’t people paying attention? One reason is that it’s difficult to imagine the scope of the problem. For those with only a casual understanding or interest in global warming, the changes listed above might read like another laundry list of environmental impacts that aren’t relevant to daily life.
That’s where James Balog, star of the new film Chasing Ice, comes in. As a long-time photographer, Balog has tried to illustrate the interaction between humans and nature throughout his career. In 2007, after personally witnessing the melting of glaciers on an assignment for National Geographic, he started a groundbreaking project to document the demise of the world’s ice. Called the Extreme Ice Survey, Balog and his team put 27 cameras in place around the world and have taken pictures of glaciers every hour of daylight since.
Chasing Ice documents the enormously challenging process of getting the project off the ground, as well as the jaw-dropping final product showing geologic changes taking place in just a few years. Suddenly, the melting of the Arctic becomes real, immediate, and terrifying.
More importantly, through the time-lapsed photos and the film’s narration, Balog and director Jeff Orlowski successfully humanize the glaciers and explain why their changes are so important. This is one of the most important outcomes of the film. And judging from the response of both viewers and film critics, their approach is moving people in a big way.
Watch Chasing Ice. Bring your family, bring your friends, watch it on the big screen if you can. It will fill you with awe for the beauty of ice, admiration for the tenacity of Balog and his crew, and terror at the scale of changes we’re creating on earth.
I spoke to Chasing Ice star James Balog about the film and his philosophy behind communicating the reality of climate change:
Stephen Lacey: I wanted to ask about your initial thoughts on climate change. You talk in the film about being a skeptic back in the 80’s when people like James Hansen were really first starting to raise alarms in the policy sphere. So as a nature photographer, at what point did you look around and realize that you could see some of these changes firsthand and how did that change your perspective?
James Balog: Well, I have to confess that my initial resistance to this was connected with my work on some other big environmental issues back in the late 80′s and early 90′s on the extinction of animals and deforestation. There was a finite well of worry that I was willing to climb over and there were only so many things I wanted to occupy my brain with. So part of it was like, “oh my God here’s another issue.”
I’ve also been a little bit of a skeptic over the years about how activists like to paint things in very black and white terms; heroes and villains in order to motivate their bases and make issues really simple so that they can get people to pay attention. So there was that.
But an even bigger thing was that I thought that the science was simply based on computer models which at the time were not at all bomb proof. Now of course they are quite good – they’re not perfect but they are extremely good. And I took the time to learn in the late 90′s that the science was not about computer models, it was about actual tangible physical evidence that was preserved in the ice cores of Greenland and Antarctica. That was really the smoking gun showing how far outside normal, natural variation the world has become. And that’s when I started to really get the message that this was something consequential and serious and needed to be dealt with.
SL: So in order to document these changes, the Extreme Ice Survey was born in the mid-2000s. You set up 27 cameras in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland and Montana and took pictures every hour of daylight for a few years. Describe what you saw when you got the images back and started looking through them and creating these sequences.