James Balog's documentary, Chasing Ice, took him to some of the world's most endangered glaciers. We ask 'Is it too late to save them?'
When acclaimed photographer James Balog committed himself to record the melting of the world’s glaciers, it’s safe to say he didn’t quite know what he was letting himself in for. Six years later, the Extreme Ice Survey is one of the extraordinary visions of climate change in action.
Balog’s static cameras, each mounted overlooking huge glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Canada, are pre-programmed to take a frame every hour. Balog and his dedicated team then regularly climb to their cameras, collect the memory stick, and then edit them together. This creates remarkable time-lapse footage of the glaciers melting away before your very eyes – an utterly terrifying, seemingly relentless shrinking; miles upon miles of it.
This came at a huge personal cost to Balog, and not just the financial commitment of travelling and maintaining a team. The endless climbing and hiking ruined his knees, resulting in surgery, leaving the restless, passionate go-getter stuck in physical first gear. Balog’s journey was shadowed by filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, whose documentary Chasing Ice is out on DVD this week – it’s inspiring, chilling and the remarkable glacier footage deserves to be seen on this biggest TV you’ve got.
Tom Hawker caught up with James Balog to ask him about the Extreme Ice Project, Chasing Ice, and his hopes for the future.
**Win a copy of Chasing Ice here**
What fires your imagination about photographing ice?
I have no other explanation to it except that I have a natural attraction to it – I’ve always found it incredibly captivating. And then when I realised that I needed to do something photographically about climate change, I couldn’t think of anything else other than ice. But it wasn’t enough to just go shoot a glacier, there needed to be a bigger story that would make it pop and sizzle.
So one day – by magic, as it always does – the New Yorker magazine asked me to shoot a few pictures for a story on climate change, which took me to some glaciers in Iceland. That made me realise that if you looked at certain glaciers by their terminuses, you can actually see climate change in action. In Iceland the actual edge of the ice was out in the open. So I started to talk to friends in the ice science community and discovered there were lots of other glaciers where you could see that.
So all of a sudden came the realisation that you could look at the ends of these glaciers, their bitter dying edges, and you could see the actual visual physical manifestation of the crumbling retreat of these things.
When you finally pulled the memory cards out of those cameras and you started to load them up, were you surprised by the results?
I was completely stunned. That was a great point of anxiety. We knew over two years we would see something but didn’t know how much we would see, and I had this huge investment in 25 cameras in all these locations, all these people [working on the project], all this travel time [spent putting it together].
I thought, ‘Well, we better [install] 25 because maybe six or seven will show something,’ but we actually discovered that they all showed something interesting and unexpected. Some of them were showing enormous change in the first couple of months. That was way beyond expectations and we realised we were looking at the process of change in action right here, right now.
Were there any glaciers you wanted to include but couldn’t?
There were a lot of them – huge world! I’ve had to do the best I can. We’ve created a historical epic here. Nobody’s done such a widespread ground-based photographic observation of glaciers ever. If I’d had any brains and I knew how to raise really big money, I should have done this as a major government-funded project.
But I come from a different world where the first reaction is to go to the communications world and art world. But we still ended up with a gigantic and quite expensive effort, which is now going on indefinitely. We’re on year six and have come to the realisation that this has to go on indefinitely.
It’s been a massive undertaking, both financially and physically. What’s been your biggest trial?
The reality is that the biggest stress that caused the most sleepless nights is financial. It was making the commitment to do this project without having the funding in hand. It was kind of jumping off the high dive – “We’re going to make it happen. Figure out the details later.”
It’s one thing to climb a rock face with that sort of mentality, it’s another thing to commit yourself to millions of dollars with the uncertainty about where the fundraising was going to come from. It’s getting a little easier now but it’s always been this battle between business considerations and creative energy. I have to spend most of my energy on business things in order to keep the creativity alive.
Were you or your team ever in some serious kind of danger, out there?
It’s absolutely dangerous frequently – a lot of things can happen. There’s not a single field site we have that’s safe. On our site in Montana we are always going past grizzly bears. You never quite know what’s in the mind of a grizzly.
The Greenland Icesheet doesn’t behave like other glaciers do in terms of how the ice fractures and the stresses. That’s a dangerous environment, and all the tricks and skills that you learn when you climb glaciers and big mountains don’t necessarily apply. So that’s a big issue and we had a highly experienced team out there, but we still almost walked into a mousetrap and got munched.
The helicopters are always dangerous and they are a significant part of our access to our field sites in Greenland and Alaska. There’s always the risk of machinery failure. In fact, at one point the helicopter engines were failing. One engine shut down and then the other engine started to shut down. We were lucky to make it back to land. Frankly I worry about that more than I worry about the ropes and crampons in the ice. The human error in flight aircraft really keeps me awake at night.
The footage is really terrifying – are you surprised more people aren't freaking out when they see it?
There are lots of people jumping around, but you know it’s a big world – 7 billion people. As much as we feel we’re having a huge outreach and reaching a vast number of people – and we have – it’s still only a fraction of the world. And once people see it with their jaws’ dropping and their eyes’ popping, going “Oh my god, I had no idea it was like this – we have to do something,” then that sentiment comes smashing into the rocks of history, tradition, vested interests and political stasis and all the rest of it.
The results look extraordinary, beautiful even, but are utterly terrifying – it’s a powerful combination?
On all my big projects I’ve had to walk this line between beauty and provocation – it’s upsetting when you really drill in underneath the surface of it. Use the beauty and interest of the visual scenes as a way of seducing the viewer into paying attention to the subject and then that draws them in to thinking about the deeper meaning of what’s going on.
So you don’t have to go and show people the so-called problem itself. You can bring them in a different direction and then they get the other story and that’s really what the pictures do. People come in through the beauty and drama and excitement of looking at these incredible things, and then it makes you think, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’
Isn’t the damage irreversible?
That’s not so. What we can do to reverse it is not going to yield major results tomorrow, or next week or next year. What we have to do is a series of incremental steps that can indeed reverse this. We have the economic solutions. We have the technological solutions, we have the policy solutions, we just need to actually implement those things.
And if the whole world switched to high-mileage cars, solar panels and wind turbines and started to conserve just a little bit we would probably start reversing this climatic warming in a couple of generations out from now. That seems like a really long time and modern politics is not set up to do things that have consequences later on.
But the consequences of doing the right thing now would create huge new job opportunities, economic opportunities, growth sectors, will create greater geo-political stability. And it will create a healthier atmosphere for you and I to breathe.