Beauty of glaciers turns nature photographer from skeptic to climate activist

What began as a fascination with the sublime forms, colors and movements of Arctic glaciers has transformed one of America's leading nature photographers into a crusader for political action on climate change.

The photographer, James Balog, once thought the climate system was too complex, too large to be affected by the actions of humans. After several years of documenting the slow retreat of the Earth's ice packs through the lens of a Nikon camera, though, Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), a project that captures through time-lapse photography the slow degradation of glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains.

Balog hopes the EIS footage will serve as a historical record for future generations that might not be able to view the solemn beauty of glaciers. And, as he travels from city to city with his images, he aims to cajole his audiences into not only pressuring their elected officials to do something about climate change but to consider a wholesale re-evaluation of their relationship to nature.

Climate change "is a universal issue that should be of concern to everyone, and I think that it's unfortunate that there are forces in society that turn it into a political football," he said. "That politicization has created quite a bit of stasis in terms of not dealing with a solution. I am quite certain that people of the future will judge us harshly for having been so slow to get going on this."

Balog's photography career, his quest to document glacial retreat with EIS and his work educating the public on the threats brought about by climate change are profiled in the film "Chasing Ice," produced and directed by Jeff Orlowski.

The film took top cinematography honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and has been screening in theaters around the United States since early November. It follows Balog and his EIS team through harrowing weather and across jaw-dropping landscapes to install their cameras.

Life and death of rivers of ice


Along the way, the EIS crew faces setbacks that could easily have ended the project. Instead it captured never-before-seen footage of major cleaving events, in which monumental portions of glacial ice break off, rise and then fall into the Arctic waters, where, as Balog explains, they contribute to rising sea levels.

Balog's interest in the outdoors, what he describes as being "interested in nature in its grandest sense" -- began in his teens, with mountain climbing.

Those excursions led Balog to focus his photography work, first, on documenting habitat destruction around the world.

A 2005 trip to Iceland on assignment for The New Yorker, though, instigated his interest in glaciers. A National Geographic assignment came the next year and allowed him to delve into ice more thoroughly. His photos became part of a 2007 cover story -- "The Big Thaw" -- that was the most widely read issue of the magazine in the 2000s.

Despite college studies in Arctic and Alpine geomorphology -- the research of landforms and how they take shape -- Balog says he remained a skeptic of the notion that humans were driving climate change.

When he was a student, Balog says, he realized that many scientific disciplines rely on computer modeling and statistical work, something he had no interest in pursuing, which propelled him toward a career in nature photography.

As a photographer, that same apprehension toward probability and modeling fueled his reluctance about accepting the scientific consensus about climate change.

"Computer models of today are quiet good. But back then they were sketchier," he said.

His photo assignments exposed him to scientific research of ice cores and how they serve as time machines that can help scientists analyze the atmospheres of the past.

"I learned it was about historic, empirical evidence that is stored in the ancient snow and ice. That was a big breakthrough when I realized it was pragmatic, three-dimensional evidence that [scientists] could hold in their hands. Then I realized I have to do something as a photographer," he said.

Something to show future generations

Balog founded EIS in 2007. He set up 12 cameras in Greenland, five in Iceland, five in Alaska and two in Montana, all aimed at glaciers that were in fast retreat.

The cameras shot a single frame every hour as long as there was daylight. Balog then downloaded the files and turned the individual frames into video clips tracking changes to the size of the ice packs.

Ever since mounting those cameras, Balog and his team of scientists and photographers have been capturing what are among the most iconic images of the impact of climate change on the landscape.

His fascination with ice is the fusing, he says, of his aesthetic sensibilities as an artist with the truth-telling responsibilities of a documentarian.

"I'm entranced by the beauty, by the sheer architecture of these forms. But there's also my response as a human being to this kind of place," he said.

"The ice is the canary in the global coal mine," he added, describing his compulsion to document the destruction that often remains unseen.

"At first we thought it was a three-year project. Then at three years, we thought it was five, then by year four and a half, we realized that it was infinite and we could never stop, and that is indeed what is going on. The cameras will go on and on as long as we have donors to support them."

Balog and the EIS team will mount cameras at South American glaciers next year and intend to document other sectors of that natural environment where human activity is permanently altering the landscape.

He said the video record "becomes a historical record that civilizations of the future will look back at and be able to witness and experience these things that will be gone in their time, things that we saw were passing and will be gone in the decades and centuries to come."

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