Interview: ‘Chasing Ice’ Star James Balog Talks Art, Science, Rationality, And Climate Denial

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.

JB: What we saw right away was ice disappearing. Ice retreating. Ice retreating at a remarkably fast rate — I mean much, much, much more rapid than I had anticipated. What we saw in those first downloads to the cameras in 2007 was kind of staggering. To be honest with you, six years later when we go and open up those cameras and play back what happened, it’s still shocking. We’re still seeing lots of retreat, and in some cases we’re also seeing rivers form and lakes form where there once was ice.

I’ve been knocking around the world’s mountain ranges for 40 years. It remains shocking to see these large, seemingly immutable features of the landscape disappearing at this rate.


SL: One of the things I like about this film is that you make these glaciers come alive. One of the problems with climate awareness generally is that glaciers, the Arctic, the Antarctic, these are places that are far off and not really a true benchmark for how people think about the changing environment.JB: The glaciers are the canary in the global coal mine. They really are a 3-dimensional manifestation of the atmosphere. I recognize that glaciers are pretty far away from where most of us live; yet it really is the first place where we have been able to express just what’s going on with climate.

In recent years we’re starting to develop the awareness down here in the mid-latitudes and the tropics that some of these extreme events are a manifestation of climate change. Obviously, extreme weather this year in North America sharply raised awareness of the connection to climate change. But until very, very recently the best place to see climate change was in these northern latitudes — and it still remains a really powerful place to see climate change because we’re in the process of losing the basic characteristics that made the Arctic Ocean the Arctic Ocean.

SL: When you look at work you’ve done — and you’ve seen this first hand — do you have particular message to climate skeptics or aggressive deniers who try to spread disinformation on this issue?

Yes. I think the information is clear. I don’t see this as a question of belief, and frankly the denier community has painted this as a question of belief. I’m not interested in belief — belief is a question of ideology and dogma and doctrine. And that’s not really what this is about. This is about rational observation of rational evidence reasonably observed by reasonable people.

I have found repeatedly that no matter what somebody’s preconception was about climate change, if I could get them in the room and show them in a gentle and impartial way what our team has observed in the world, they realize through their intellect and their hearts that this is real. And I’ve had many audiences with climate skeptics or climate deniers in the room — in many cases the majority — and I still have wound up with standing ovations from those crowds. The witnessing that we’ve done is powerful and it seems to inspire people to know that there are others who risk their lives and their careers for this cause.

People recognize that we’re not making this stuff up for political gain or financial gain. People look at this film and they go, “these guys are practically killing themselves to get these pictures — this must mean something.” And it does.

SL: Energy Secretary Steven Chu once said that he believes Americans have not gripped in their guts what the impacts of climate change will be. Do you think that this film is kind of a gut check for people?JB: Yes, I think the film is a gut check for people. I also think the drought we’ve been having this year is a gut check; I think the wildfires have been a gut check; I think the floods and the violent storms have been a gut check; and we certainly know that Superstorm Sandy was a tremendous gut check. And so this is another pivotal moment — maybe it’s more pivotal than it was 6 or 7 years ago when the issue was first getting out there. This maybe is more intense than it was back then. So all we can hope for is that the public interest in this continues and that we continue to push our national and local legislators to move our society on a more sustainable path.

SL: At the end of the film, you’re beaten up, you’re tired, you’ve gone through all these technical difficulties — the project has really of taken over your life. But you say ‘I want to look at my daughters and tell them that I’ve tried to do everything I could to alert people to this problem.’ Do you feel like you’ve done that?James — Yes. I absolutely feel like I’ve done everything I can using my own personal capabilities and capacities and destiny. And everybody has to look into themselves and find their own place — their own capacities and powers and follow their own destiny to do what they can. Because there is tremendous human capacity and tremendous human talent — we just have to harness it in order to move forward.

SL: Any other follow up projects to this in the works?JB: Absolutely. We will continue number to keep the Extreme Ice Survey cameras alive. This project doesn’t end just because the film came out. We plan to keep the observations of the world going indefinitely. In fact, we’re planning to expand the network into South America next year, funding permitting. 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.