Jan 9 2017
Chasing Ice: Visualizing a Changing Climate
Photographer James Balog shoots in Ilulissat Bay, Greenland, March 2008.
Photo credit: Chasing Ice
January 9, 2017
Chasing Ice: Visualizing a Changing Climate

Category

Climate, Living

A few weeks ago, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that seemed to show a way to reduce climate change skepticism among political conservatives.

Framing messages around “past comparisons”—that is, comparing the damaged environment of today with a more verdant, pure past—increased conservatives’ pro-environmental feelings more than dire warnings about future scenarios.

Could this be the One Weird Trick to finally convince climate deniers to get on board?

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Could a new study provide a way to turn climate deniers into believers?

I have to admit, I’m skeptical. For one thing, results in a lab are decidedly not the same as taking action in the real world—there are no consequences or compromises. Also, it’s not particularly surprising to me that past-focused materials, showing actual evidence of something happening, are more persuasive than theoretical predictions of what could possibly take place in the future.

But, that’s not to say the idea doesn’t have merit! Indeed, sometimes seeing evidence of change with your very own eyes is absolutely critical, especially when it revolves around something as hard to envision as climate change.

Capturing Change on Film

Over the holidays, while decompressing from family overload with a nightly Netflix binge, I stumbled upon a documentary that, in my opinion, is most moving, most beautiful visualization of climate change I’ve ever seen.

Chasing Ice is a 2012 film that follows National Geographic photographer James Balog as he embarks upon a personal quest to chronicle the planet’s shrinking glaciers. Traveling with a team of young adventurers across some of the world’s most brutal terrain, Balog deploys an array of time-lapse cameras trained on glaciers in Alaska, Montana, Greenland, and Iceland.

The cameras were designed to withstand extreme conditions—think sub-zero temperatures and 150 mph winds—and to snap about 8,000 frames per year. Balog and his team periodically returned to the cameras to retrieve the footage, and after several years, compiled the hundreds of thousands of images into short “films” that literally show glaciers receding in real time, right before your eyes.

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The Sólheimajökull Glacier near the southern tip of Iceland as it appeared in April 2006 (top). The same view in February 2009 (bottom), shows the glacier much diminished. Photographs: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey.

Sometimes the melting was so rapid that the ice retreated right out of the camera’s view. (See some of the footage here.)

The results are incredibly beautiful and undeniably troubling. Years are compressed into seconds as ancient mountains of ice shrink, collapse, and disappear. Chunks of glacier larger than lower Manhattan break apart, crash into the sea, and float away.

It’s truly haunting, and very compelling, which is exactly what Balog was going for. “I want them [viewers] to be fascinated,” he said, “and to viscerally understand that climate change is real, and this is what it looks like.”

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The calving edge of the Rink Glacier on the west coast of Greenland, observed by EIS camera GLA2 on July 22, 2011. Photo credit: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey

I admit that it’s hard to come away from this film feeling particularly optimistic (especially in our current political climate). But, it’s not hard to come away feeling energized and inspired to take some kind of action. And this may actually be where the film falters a little bit—it fails to provide any kind of next step for viewers.

It’s a small criticism for a big film, and one that’s absolutely recommended, for all the climate change activists—and deniers—in your life. You can find Chasing Ice on Netflix or Amazon.

Photographer James Balog shoots in Ilulissat Bay, Greenland, March 2008.
Photo credit: Chasing Ice