Balog's apocalyptic choice of imagery is his way of describing a calving event, when a huge chunk of ice breaks free from a glacier, and Balog has seen footage of rapture from right where it happened.
Balog is an accomplished nature photographer and the driving force behind , a documentary film made of time-lapse photography he and his team captured with remote cameras left on or near glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska. The movie, which will be , is a gripping way to drive home the reality of climate change through stunning footage from the edge of the world. And it's also an adventure story about the physical challenge and technical struggle of keeping a scattered group of cameras operational and rolling in some of the harshest environments on Earth.
Edge of the World
Everyone has seen pictures of icebergs collapsing into the sea and satellite imagery showing glacial retreat now versus the past. What's missing is the human connection. "Satellites do repeat [images], but they do it from 400 miles up," Balog says. "We all live within 7 feet of the ground. The majority of us within 6." In the film, glaciers appear on our scale, and change right before our eyes.
To Balog, a mountaineer who says his interest in spreading the word about climate change was catalyzed in the 1990s, the only way to make that connection was to go to the Arctic and see the glaciers move and change, hour after hour. "Time is a major character in this project," he says. While most people don't think of glaciers as something that change at all (consider the vernacular phrase "glacial pace") his time lapse photography shows natural features that change on a daily basis.
His network of cameras began as 25 Nikon D-200s. At one point it grew to 43, each one taking one picture every half-hour for as long as the sun was out. Balog says that when the project started, 16 GB memory cards were basically the best around, and his cameras pushed that limit. The Icelandic recorders could be reached with a short drive from Rekjavik, so Balog could empty the cards every few months. But some of the most remote Greenland cameras went more than a year between visits, pushing the 16-gig cards to their limits. Eventually 32 GB cards and larger became readily available, and with that extra storage the project now tallies more than 1 million still images.
Getting to that total didn't come without disaster. To keep their Nikons running in the Arctic, Balog and colleagues outfitted them with solar panels that fed juice into the batteries and bolted the cameras to the bedrock to try to buffet them against the minus 40 F temperatures of Greenland or the hurricane-force winds that would stir up in Iceland. It didn't always work: Chasing Ice is a story full of frustrations, when the team found that rock falls and deep snow had crushed or buried cameras. Some of the cameras took to inexplicably showing only static that Balog called "zebra print," ruining priceless footage.
Even accessing the cameras compelled Balog (and his aching knees) to hike, ski, and once dogsled across far-flung sheets of ice. But all the weary muscles and joints brought unparalleled adventure.
"We were exploring places where probably no human had set foot," he says. The cameras recorded those catastrophic calving events as well. Balog walked across places where the surface ice felt like popcorn and a stream of water flowed right underneath his feet. He said he saw —holes in a glacier where water flows down through—with gushing water that could have exceed the volume of Niagara Falls.
Yet Balog spent so much time in the high Arctic that these spectacular formations nearly became commonplace. "This improbably remote place becomes home."
This Is What It Looks Like
Chasing Ice viewers probably will experience the same pair of feelings that Balog did while working on the project: Sheer awe at the grandeur of glaciers and the cacophony of destruction when they fall apart, and sadness at seeing these ice fortresses slowly fade away and realizing what it means.
"I want them to be fascinated and to viscerally understand that climate change is real, and this is what it looks like," he says. The power of the time lapse, Balog argues, is that it's not a mathematical model that some think tank opposed to action on climate change could combat with its own set of papers. "We went there," he says. "We saw this. This is what it looks like."