Propelled By Climate Change, Activist Is Drawn To Ice Photographer James Balog has spent the last several years recording global warming in its coldest regions. NPR's Scott Simon talks with Balog about the new documentary, Chasing Ice, which follows Balog on his quest to document the planet's vanishing glaciers.
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Propelled By Climate Change, Activist Is Drawn To Ice

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Propelled By Climate Change, Activist Is Drawn To Ice

Propelled By Climate Change, Activist Is Drawn To Ice

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Superstorm Sandy has put the topic of climate change front and center once again. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote just after Sandy staggered his city, quote, "Our climate is changing and while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it; the risk that it might be given this week's devastation should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

Photographer James Balog has spent the last several years of his career trying to show the world warming in its coldest regions, not before-and-after shots, but shots of glacier ice melting in real time.

JAMES BALOG: And when I saw those, the lights went off for me. I realized the public doesn't want to hear about more statistical studies, more computer models, more projections. What they need is a believable, understandable piece of visual evidence, something that grabs them in the gut.

SIMON: And so he created the Extreme Ice Survey.

BALOG: The initial goal was to put out 25 cameras for three years and they would shoot every hour as long as it was daylight. We would download the cameras every so often and turn those individual frames into video clips that would show you how the landscape was changing.

SIMON: James Balog's photographs have appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, Outside and Vanity Fair. He is the subject of a new film directed by Jeff Orlowsky called "Chasing Ice." James Balog joins us now from Denver. Thanks so much for being with us.

BALOG: Greetings. My pleasure.

SIMON: Help us understand the scale of this project because you're putting a whole bunch of cameras in, to say the least, inhospitable climate.

BALOG: You know, as we sit here today, we have 34 cameras at 16 glaciers, scattered around various places. Those places include the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Nepalese Himalaya by Mount Everest, and Montana, in Glacier National Park in the United States. These cameras have to withstand gale-force winds, have to function in temperatures at minus 30, minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

And it's been going on since 2007. Though we thought the project would initially be just a few years, it now appears that it's going to be indefinite.

SIMON: When you see the film, you speak very lovingly about ice.

BALOG: Yeah, it's sort of like doing a portrait of people, you know. Richard Avedon and Irving Penn spent their entire careers doing portraits of faces, essentially and found endless variation and endless beauty and endless magic in those faces. And for me, that's the same thing as what's going on here.

SIMON: What so you see in the faces of ice?

BALOG: Well, there's just an extraordinary and infinite architecture and character and personality in these places. Water is a remarkable substance, obviously. It metamorphoses from a solid state to a liquid state to a vapor state. And in that passage, I discovered that there was basically an infinite series of variations of images and colors and light and form that could be seen in these landscapes. And I basically fell in love with these places.

SIMON: You point to a patch of ice which has lost more volume over the past 10 years than it did in the previous century.

BALOG: Yes. That was a glacier called the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. And it's this huge river of ice about four and a half miles wide that comes pouring off the Greenland ice sheet. And it's responsible for releasing more icebergs than any other ice stream in the entire Northern Hemisphere. And, in fact, the iceberg that sank the Titanic a century ago is believed to have come from that glacier.

SIMON: Near the near of the film, there's an especially dramatic catastrophic collapse.


SIMON: You know that sound pretty well, I bet. Right?

BALOG: Yeah. It's a rumble that just goes right through your body. The only thing I can compare it to is being at the end of a runway at a major metropolitan airport and having 747s going off overhead, you know? You can feel the rumble going right through your ribcage. And it's as if the entire lower tip of Manhattan broke off.

Basically, a chunk of ice a couple of times wider than the lower tip of Manhattan and it's an enormous block of ice vertically. If you can imagine, say, the Empire State Building, that's approximately 1,000 feet high. Well, the ice is nearly 3,000 feet high, if you measure it from the surface of the glacier all the way down to the submarine area.

So you're getting a 3,000 foot high block of ice, measuring many miles across, rolling over and collapsing in the matter of an hour or so. It's really just mind boggling when you see these things.

SIMON: Haven't glaciers, one way or another, always been melting and breaking and replenishing the oceans of the world, we just didn't see it?

BALOG: Well, that's absolutely true. This is a natural process. But what we know from extensive, extensive analysis, by researchers from all around the world is that we are way, way out beyond normal, natural variation now. And that's connected with changes in the atmosphere. And these things are, of course, raising sea level. And they will continue to keep raising sea level steadily if we keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

SIMON: James Balog, he and the world's glaciers are the subject of a new film called "Chasing Ice." It's directed by Jeff Orlowsky. He's author of a new large-format art book called, "Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers." Mr. Balog, thanks so much for being with us.

BALOG: My pleasure. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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