Daily Picture Show

Photographing White, Blue Or Greenland?

To call James Balog a photographer would be an understatement. He has been a nature photographer for 25 years, published 7 books and won numerous awards, and was the first photographer ever commissioned to create a full plate of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.

More than a photographer, Balog is an explorer and a conservationist; his most recent undertaking is called the Extreme Ice Survey. Founded by Balog in 1996, the project documents extreme glacial melt, using time-lapse cameras planted across the Northern Hemisphere. Last year he was on NPR's Fresh Air to discuss a PBS documentary. This month, his photos of Greenland's changing colors can be found in National Geographic magazine.

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    Buried air and gas from bacteria and algae bubble to the surface of a pothole burned by cryoconite, where an overnight freeze has trapped them.
    James Balog/National Geographic
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    Meltwater has carved a 150-foot-deep canyon.
    James Balog/National Geographic
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    The black splotches mingled with ice and meltwater are cryoconite — powdery debris blown to Greenland from often distant deserts, fires, coal plants and diesel engines. It reduces the ice's reflectivity, increasing absorption of solar heat.
    James Balog/National Geographic
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    A field assistant rappels into a glacial crevasse. The bottom of the crevasse could open into a moulin, or vertical shaft, through which a lake on the surface might drain to the depths of the ice sheet.
    James Balog/National Geographic
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    Summer meltwater collects in a lake before a moulin sucks the water out.
    James Balog/National Geographic
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    Author Mark Jenkins skims over a moulin 96 feet deep in a meltwater lake. Cryoconite dust scattered on the surrounding ice will likely converge into a darker patch, creating another hot spot for ice loss.
    James Balog/National Geographic

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If you're anything like me, you have a pretty rudimentary understanding of glacial melting. But one interesting thing I learned from this article is that the melt isn't just a result of "global warming." There's also this stuff called cryocronite — a fancy term for airborne dirt and sediment that finds its way to glaciers. It's black, so it absorbs sunlight (i.e., heat), which accelerates melting. "It's like pulling a black curtain over the ice," a researcher is quoted as saying in the article.

Cryocronite itself is nothing new. It's the result of volcanic eruptions and distant deserts and has been trapped in the ice for ages. But it's also a byproduct of fires, diesel engines and coal-burning plants that we have yet to really harness. And the faster the ice melts, and the more we pollute, the more cryocronite eclipses what's left of the white, reflective surface of glaciers — and, in turn, hastens the melt.

That's news to me.

But then again, what do I know? I just look at pictures all day.

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