In The Arctic, A Time-Lapse View Of Climate Change Intent on documenting the effects of climate change, nature photographer James Balog ventured into ice-bound regions with 26 time-lapse cameras.
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In The Arctic, A Time-Lapse View Of Climate Change

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In The Arctic, A Time-Lapse View Of Climate Change

In The Arctic, A Time-Lapse View Of Climate Change

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has been going to some of the most remote and dangerous places on earth, witnessing natural phenomena that no humans have witnessed before, and he's making it possible for scientists and you and me to watch, too.

James Balog is documenting the melting of glaciers around the world, the most visible manifestations of climate change on the planet. With the help of helicopters and special gear, he has been able to get out on the ice in remote places so he can watch glaciers crack and icebergs break off, follow glacial waterfalls that are drilling holes in the ice, and track the water from disappearing glacial lakes.

Balog is the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, which is using time-lapse photography to reveal how glaciers and sea ice are fluctuating.

The images are amazing, but the implications for the future of the planet are disturbing. You can see some of the images next Tuesday on public television, on a "NOVA"-National Geographic special called "Extreme Ice." Balog has also written a companion book called "Extreme Ice Now."

James Balog, welcome to FRESH AIR. The Extreme Ice Project is so extraordinary, both in terms of what it's scientifically documenting, but also in terms of what you're bringing back visually. So why don't you start by just giving us an overview of the project and where you have cameras positioned?

Mr. JAMES BALOG (Founder, Extreme Ice Survey): Yeah, we have 26 time-lapse cameras positioned at glaciers all across the Northern Hemisphere, and these cameras are out there in these ridiculously hostile environments, photographing every hour.

They're on automated little custom-made computer systems, and they shoot every hour around the clock, as long as it's daylight.

They've already been out for two years. They'll be out for another two to four more years. We actually had originally planned that it would a three-year project, but the results we're getting are so spectacular that everybody in science worlds and media-communications world wants us to keep them out there.

The cameras are at glaciers in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, British Columbia, Montana, and we're also doing some repeat photography in the Alps and in South America.

So the time-lapse cameras shoot every hour, as long as it's daylight. And then we wind up with many thousands of pictures from each one of these cameras, and we put them together in these video clips that animate the life of these glaciers so that you can really see what's happening and get a sense of geologic-scale change coming alive right in front of your eyes.

GROSS: Yeah, so what are some of the things this time-lapse photography is enabling you to see that humans otherwise wouldn't be able to witness?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, what's really stunning about this for me as a mountaineer, for me as somebody who's trained in natural sciences and for me as a photographer is that we're seeing the invisible come alive.

You tend to think in terms of geologic-scale change or monumental change on the earth as being something that happens a long time ago or will happen a long time in the future, and yet in these cameras, we're seeing these monumental changes happening right now.

It makes it very immediate, very present, very alive. You know, I feel like I'm witnessing something that no human should normally have a chance to witness, but yet these cameras are seeing it.

GROSS: And what you're witnessing, in part, is icebergs breaking away from glaciers, glaciers receding and, in some cases, almost disappearing.

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. We're right in the middle of an historic period of geologic change, and we're seeing these things vanishing right in front of our eyes.

This glacier we were just at in Iceland the other day, it's astounding how it's changed just in the past six months, let alone in the past two years, four years, six years. And these cameras are capturing things that otherwise would go unnoticed.

You know, I'm always reminded of that old saying about if a tree falls in the forest and no one's there to hear the sounds, you know, did it ever really happen?

Well, if a glacier vanishes in the Arctic and no camera is there to witness it, would anyone ever know if it ever was there or if this event really happened? Well, we're bearing witness to the fact that it is happening, and we've got the evidence.

GROSS: So you've witnessed the largest iceberg breaking off of a glacier that we know of, you know, that anyone's ever witnessed.

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. We had a team out at a huge glacier in Greenland in May, and this glacier is called the Ilulissat glacier. This one glacier puts more icebergs into the global ocean than all the other glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere put together.

And my team, Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski, camped out there for 10 days. And we had nine cameras running around the clock, watching this glacier as it was changing.

And all of a sudden, on the evening of May 28th, we put on film the biggest break-off event - or it's actually known as a calving event. We witnessed the biggest break-up event that's ever been put on film. And it's - the imagery is really, really spectacular.

GROSS: Would you describe what it looks like?

Mr. BALOG: As the glacier breaks off, you're seeing these blocks of ice that are more than half a mile high breaking off from the face of the glacier, rolling up out of the ocean and essentially exploding in front of your eyes.

And this happens minute after minute. And on the evening of May 28th, my Extreme Ice Survey team was camped out at this huge glacier in Greenland. It's called the Ilulissat glacier. Now, this glacier puts more ice into the global ocean than all the other glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere put together.

And all of a sudden, over the course of 75 minutes, my team, Adam and Jeff, saw these monumental icebergs, icebergs the size of El Capitan in Yosemite - that huge cliff face you see on the left as you drive into Yosemite Valley - icebergs that size were breaking off the terminus of this glacier and rolling over and basically exploding in front of the cameras. We had nine cameras going simultaneously, time-lapse cameras, as well as video cameras, and they caught this whole thing, this huge churning and cascading of icebergs as this glacier broke off.

In all, by the time the whole thing was done, the glacier had broken off across a calving face three miles wide, and it broke off a piece that was about half a mile deep, left to right, across the surface of the ocean. It was really a huge thing. And nobody's ever witnessed anything like that on cameras before, and we caught it.

GROSS: So is this normal, you know, these huge icebergs breaking away from the glacier?

Mr. BALOG: Well, you know, ever since glaciers have gone into seawater, icebergs have always broken off. It's just in the nature of these things. But what's unusual about our time is that the events that we're witnessing are in the context of a tremendous retreat or deflation of the Greenland Ice Sheet, as well as many other glaciers around the world.

Basically, 90 or 95 percent of the glaciers around the world, outside Antarctica, are retreating right now. There's very few that are static or advancing. Almost everything is retreating.

So what we're looking at is a snapshot of this overwhelming event of ice retreating, and it's not retreating for abstract reasons. It's retreating because the climates are changing around the world, in Asia, in Europe, in North America, in Africa and South America. Everything is changing right now.

We're getting precipitation patterns that are changing, and we're getting, of course, temperature warming everywhere.

GROSS: And when you say that the glaciers are retreating, you mean shrinking?

Mr. BALOG: Shrinking, yes. They're retreating in the sense of at the terminuses, at the ends of the glaciers, they're retreating. At the same time, they're actually getting thinner, and that's what we call deflation. And, in a sense, the deflation is where the majority of the volume of these glaciers is lost. It's not necessarily out there at the terminus, but this thinning of the mass of the glacier is where most of it disappears.

And this deflation, the retreat, it's happening almost everywhere.

GROSS: My guest is James Balog. He's the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, which is documenting, through time-lapse photography, what's happening to glaciers around the world.

There's a new "NOVA" documentary based on this work that will be shown next Tuesday. There's also a new book that Balog wrote, called "Extreme Ice Now."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Balog, and he's the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. This is a project in which he's put time-lapse cameras on glaciers around the world, and he's documenting what's happening to the glaciers.

There's a new "NOVA" documentary about the work he's been doing. That will be shown next Tuesday, and Balog also has a new book called "Extreme Ice Now."

One of the things you've been documenting is what happens to the melting water. And there's - in the "NOVA" documentary, there's an incredible shot where there's like a hole that melting water has been falling into, like an ice hole. And you, with the help of ropes, lower yourself into the hole so that you can photograph what it looks like inside there.

Can you describe what you saw and how it felt to be in this huge ice hole?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, the scene you're referring to was on the Greenland Ice Sheet. We were about 50 miles in from the edge of the ice. And what happens is that the - as the sheet is melting, it creates rivers on top of the ice. And the rivers go along until they find a crevice in the ice, and then they drill their way down through 3,000 vertical feet of ice to the bottom of the ice sheet, and the water flows out to sea unseen, down in the dark, underneath the ice sheet.

Well, up where that hole opens up on the surface, that's called a moulin, which is a French word for windmill, because the idea is that the water is scouring its way down, you know, swirling down the way a windmill would in drilling a hole into the ice.

And these are spectacular scenes, you know, spectacular sites. And so I, as a photographer, naturally, want to get down inside there and see what that looks like and try and make a picture of it.

So as you go down inside these things, you're surrounded by this world of blue, and you're surrounded by a character of blue that you don't see anywhere else on the surface of this planet.

I mean, I've seen a lot of blue in the course of being a traveling nature and adventure photographer for 30 years, but I've never seen a glowing, radiant deep blue the way it is when you're inside the ice sheet.

So it's really spectacular. It's eerie. It's scary down there because, you know, the world is dropping away into the, you know, the unknown void down below you. You're also worried about whether or not maybe one of the stream channels will rearrange itself up on the surface and suddenly, you wind up with a river of 33-degree meltwater crashing down over your head before you can get out of the hole.

So it's a pretty high-intensity place, but it's incredibly beautiful and incredibly exciting. And I feel honored and privileged to have had the chance to bring back some of the very, very few pictures that have ever been shot down in these places.

GROSS: What explains the shade of blue that you saw?

Mr. BALOG: Well, the sunlight comes down through the ice sheet, and the ice absorbs all the colors of the rainbow, except for this one, very particular, exquisite, elegant shade of blue. It doesn't give any other color back except that blue.

So you're actually seeing the ice sheet, in effect, creating its own palette. It's like it's created its own painting, and it's a wonderful thing to witness.

GROSS: So when you have the water drilling down into the ice, is that going to create more opportunities for ice to break away from the glacier and become an iceberg?

Mr. BALOG: Well, this is a huge question in modern science right now, and I have many good friends in the science community who are engaged in trying to understand these physical systems because there's a lot of unknowns in that part of it.

What certainly is happening is that a huge amount of heat is getting transferred from the sun into the meltwater, and then the meltwater carries the heat down into the ice sheet. And there's very strong evidence that it's changing the inherent internal dynamics of the ice sheet by having all this extra heat introduced into the honeycomb of passages and caverns and rivers that get burned down through the ice.

There's also very clear evidence that the water running on the bed of the ice helps to lubricate it, and it changes the degree to which it flows out to sea.

But there's another huge issue, really huge issue, and that is the interaction of seawater with the termini of these big glaciers as they're coming out into the ocean.

The warmer the seawater is, the less pack ice, the less frozen sea surface there is to hold the flowing glaciers in place. And as the winters have been getting warmer - it's much warmer in Greenland now than it was 20, 25 years ago. As the winters get warmer, you have less sea ice holding back those glaciers that are trying to flow out.

So you wind up with considerably more ice flowing out these valleys and dumping into the ocean. We're - basically, year after year, we're seeing record outflow from the Greenland ice sheet, and that's a consequence primarily of warming air temperatures, as well as warming seawater. This is a big moment right now.

GROSS: So it sounds like it's really quite a cycle. Things warm a little bit, ice begins to melt, icebergs break away. You have these streams of water drilling down into the ice that creates even more warming of the ice. So once the ball gets rolling, it's self-perpetuating, and the process becomes more rapid.

Mr. BALOG: Absolutely. I mean, that's been the thing that, for me, has been particularly astounding. I mean, certainly, I'm aware of, you know, ideas of natural systems being interconnected. But boy, the more you get into the science, the more you realize how all of this stuff fits together.

The atmosphere fits together with the precipitation coming out of it. That fits together with the ice sheet. That fits together with the way the glaciers flow, and then the ocean is tied together with all of this. It truly is one big system.

It's - strangely enough, it's like, you know, what you learned when you were nine years old in science class, those little diagrams that the teacher put on the wall about the hydrosphere, you know, and the rain coming down and how the rain loops back around through the system from the ocean.

Well, that's really what I'm seeing in real time and space in looking at this process. And it's given me a very profound sense, more than I ever had - and I've been around this kind of stuff for many decades now. But it's giving me a profound sense of how interconnected it all is, and ultimately, of course, how we as humans are connected to it and what it means for us.

GROSS: And how fragile it is, I think it's giving you a sense of, too.

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, you know, one of the huge misconceptions the human race has, or has had for a long time, is that the earth is this big, unchanging system and that we can do basically whatever we want.

You know, we can be indifferent to it. It's a static theater on which the human race operates. And one of the big sort of bits of intellectual, psychological, philosophical evolution we're going through and have been going through for some decades - but we're going through it very intensely again right now - is to recognize that we are players in this.

In fact, there's a new branch of science that is suggesting that we are the dominant agent of change on this earth now. It's no longer nature. It's the impacts we as a species bring to nature. It's us.

GROSS: One of the things that the "NOVA" documentary shows is meltwater lakes. And before we describe your experiences with meltwater lakes, just describe what a meltwater lake is.

Mr. BALOG: What happens out in Greenland is that the sun warms up the surface of the ice, this meltwater percolates all over the ice sheet, and it eventually consolidates in these lakes.

And then the lakes sort of decant, you know, as if somebody just tipped a bottle over, and all of a sudden, you have these rivers running out across the surface of the ice.

And the rivers run until they find a crevice, and they drop down through a crevice and flow out to the bottom of the ice sheet and flow out to sea.

The lakes are these unbelievably beautiful sapphire jewels, and there's thousands of them out there. There's not a couple here and there. There's thousands of these lakes, thousands of rivers. And in some cases, these rivers form these huge slot canyons.

So it winds up looking like the canyonlands out in the Utah desert. You know how you have those beautiful orange and red rocks with those muddy rivers carving through the orange and red rocks?

Well, imagine instead of orange and red, it's white from the ice, and down in the bottom of those canyons, you have sapphire-blue water instead of muddy water. So you have this amazing landscape of like this huge wedding cake being cut by these ribbons of sapphire water. It's really fabulous.

GROSS: And what's maybe even more remarkable is that some of these lakes vanish overnight, and you kind of witnessed that. Would you describe what happens to the lake when it vanishes?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, it's crazy. It's crazy. You know, you'll have a big lake there, sometimes a couple miles across, and all of a sudden, the ice sheet will fracture. You'll just have essentially an earthquake, which we've come to call ice quakes.

You have an ice quake that splits through the ice. A huge rift opens up underneath the lake, and fump, the water pours down through these crevices to the bottom of the ice sheet.

My friend Ian Joughin, who's a scientist who studied this quite a bit, calculated on the tapping out of one of these lakes. We call it tapping out. The lake taps out.

He calculated that the flow of the water pouring down one of these crevices was equivalent to the flow of Niagara Falls for about two hours, and it's this huge, sucking action as it's roaring down to the bottom of the ice sheet.

GROSS: So it's like noisy and violent?

Mr. BALOG: Well, you hear this great rumble. And when you're standing out there, you can feel the ice sheet jumping up and down. It's like a waterbed. You know, the ice is elastic. It's not even like a rock. You know, it's elastic and springy, and these ice quakes happen very suddenly, very rapidly and move huge masses of ice underneath your feet.

So it feels like this gigantic waterbed sometimes. You know, you get this very deep, low-frequency whoomph that goes through your world. You can kind of feel it in your bone marrow. You almost don't hear it, but you feel it, and you can feel the ice gyrating a little bit underneath your feet. And it's eerie.

It makes you realize how small you are. You're just this little ant up on the surface of this huge elephant underneath you, and it's going to do whatever it needs to, quite independent of you up there. And it could throw you around quite easily if it chose to.

GROSS: James Balog will be back in the second half of the show. He's the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. You can see his work next Tuesday on a "NOVA"-National Geographic special called "Extreme Ice." He's also written a companion book called "Extreme Ice Now." And you can see a slideshow of his images and one of his time-lapse videos on our Web site: This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Balog, who's documenting the receding glaciers and melting ice sheets through his project the Extreme Ice Survey. His time-lapse cameras are documenting changes in the ice that humans have never witnessed before. The images are visually spectacular, but also disturbing because the melting ice is a symptom of climate change. Balog's work is the subject of "NOVA"-National Geographic special that will be shown Tuesday on PBS. Balog has a companion book called "Extreme Ice Now." When we left off, we were talking about huge lakes on the ice sheets created by glacial meltwater. There's a sequence in the NOVA documentary in which you are lying on the edge of the hole that one of these meltwater lakes is draining into, and it's a remarkable image. Tell us what it was like to be on the edge of that hole watching the water go in.

Mr. BALOG: Well, yeah, that was pretty creepy because this hole was about 20 feet in diameter, okay. It just this circle drilled down into the ice, 20 feet in diameter, going straight down for something like 30 stories. You know, I was looking off the edge of the skyscraper, essentially, straight down 30 stories. And there were still some waterfalls pouring down off the side. But what was really weird about it is just the matter of a couple of hours before I was laying on the edge of this hole, there had been a lake 30 or 40 feet deep over my head. And that whole lake had gone pouring down through the hole.

And we woke up one morning and noticed that the lake was disappearing. So we scrambled, we hurried around the camp about a mile away from this lake and put on our climbing gear and went racing down there so that we could watch the edge of the water as it was retreating in. Well, it drained so fast, the water in the bed of the lake was basically gone by the time we got there. So I, being nut-job photographer…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALOG: …I certainly, I had to stick my head over the edge of that hole to get a picture looking down. Well, because we had been so hasty, I hadn't brought all my proper technical climbing gear down to the edge. So I was not anchored when I crawled up to the edge of the hole. Now that ice was the slickest ice that I have ever experienced in my life. You could almost not stand up on this stuff. Right after the water drained, it was like glass covered with grease. So as you're going up to those rounded edge of this hole, you're terrified that you are about to go slipping off.

And so I had laid down and wiggled on my stomach up to the edge of the hole and I reached out with my arms and suspended the camera over the hole from my arms so that I didn't have my head quite so far over. You know, all of that was fine. It felt, you know, intimidating but reasonable. Yet the thing its always in the back of your mind is we don't know if another ice quake is about to happen, and if the right kind of an ice quake happens, it's just going to flip me right off the edge of this - the precipice here and throw me down inside that cavern.

We saw, just a quarter mile away from that spot, we saw a place where an ice quake had displaced the ice 20 feet vertically. There had been an ice quake that shot this block of ice 20 feet up in the air, apparently instantaneously. And so it's always in your mind: My God, if something like that happens, I'm dead. You know, I'm over the edge. It's all over. It was a very high intensity moment, to say the least.

GROSS: Did you get a great shot?

Mr. BALOG: Oh, it was unbelievable. It was incredibly beautiful. It was one of the best shots that I've had in four years of working on these glaciers. It was just insanely beautiful. Everybody who sees it - it's actually not in the book. It'll be in the next book. And you're just looking down into this seemingly endless void of blue, and it's this radiant aqua marine. And there's a waterfall pouring down one side, and the waterfall goes down and then it disappears into the blackness down in the bottom.

And its - when you look into it, you feel like you are looking into another galaxy, you know? It reminds me the most of those shots of the, you know, the Hubble Space Telescope has shot looking off into the Crab Nebula or something out far, far, far away from us. And yet we're looking down into the heart of the earth. And it's - you're seeing something that human eyes have never seen before.

GROSS: So you're lying on the edge of this hole, water is pouring down. It's a 30-story drop. You're on incredibly slippery ice. You're afraid to really stick your head over the hole, so your arms are holding the camera over the hole. You take your photograph. How do you get up afterwards?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALOG: Very, very, very carefully. You don't just kind of pull your knees up under you and put your hands up under you and stand up because it - you really are right, - I was truly on the edge of being able to balance on this thing. You know, like five percent either way, and I would've lost my balance and been gone. So when it was time to finish the shot, I had to just wriggle very carefully back away from the hole until I got into some more level ice and I could push myself up into a, you know, a crawling position and eventually stand up and retreat from the edge. It was most exciting.

GROSS: I imagine you've thought about this. Say, God forbid, that you slipped into this hole and fell 30 stories into oblivion in a landscape that no one's really ever witnessed before, and there'd be no way of getting you out of there. Have you thought what - I hate to bring this up - but what kind of death that would be?

Mr. BALOG: Well, it would be absolutely hideous. There's no question. I mean, certainly, I think about it. I've thought about it quite a lot as I was laying there on the edge. It was like this, you know, I'm trying to do my job as a photographer, but there's this other part of your mind is sitting there going, don't screw up. Keep focus. Stay safe. Keep your balance. Don't make any false moves. Pay attention.

It's always like this voice going, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention all the time because, you know, you're very aware of the fact that it would be a hideous death going down in that hole. And if you managed to survive the fall, there is absolutely no chance of ever getting out of there, and we didn't have ropes that would have been long enough to reach me. But in any case, you know, the fall would kill you for sure. And you're going down into this fathomless abyss. I mean, it really is like "Journey to the Center of the Earth" down there.

And nobody's ever been down there, and nobody would ever go down there and could never get you out. So it's not a place to make any mistakes.

GROSS: So you took this extraordinary risk and got an extraordinary photo out of it that everyone says it remarkable to see. What does it tell scientists?

Mr. BALOG: I don't know that the photo tells much in a quantitative sense, but it brings home a visual reality of what's down there. Nobody's seen a sight like that before. But to me, the story is not in the science. To me, the story is in the art and lyricism of it. It brings to the human eye and the human mind and the human heart a sense of grandeur and majesty and exploration and novelty that people don't expect to have from something as abstract and distant as the Greenland ice sheet.

But there is this world there, this world to celebrate, this world to look at, to enjoy and to appreciate. And that's really, I think, what the picture does the best.

GROSS: I think this is maybe the opportunity for me to ask you if you are a religious man at all, and if this experience has affected your sense of spirituality one way or another. I'm not implying here that you should be religious or that it should have increased your sense of that. I'm just kind of curious.

Mr. BALOG: You know, I have a very, very broad sense of spirituality. I'm not a practicing member of any religion, but I have a very deep sense that there - I suppose that would have to say that there is some sort of a force - a God force, if you want to call it that - that unites this incredible earth experience and the people who live on it, unites us to the galaxy that's out there over our heads all the time. And in that sense, it is religious. But I think if it is spiritual rather then explicitly religious.

To me, religious means that one is a subscriber to certain theological beliefs attached to a particular church. And I'm not that. But definitely, I have a spiritual sense about all of this.

GROSS: My guest is James Balog. He's using time-lapse photography to document receding glaciers and melting ice sheets through his project the Extreme Ice Survey. It's the subject to Tuesday's "NOVA"-National Geographic special on PBS. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Balog, and he's the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. This is a project in which he's put time-lapse cameras on glaciers around the world and he's documenting what's happening to the glaciers. And what's happening to a lot of them is they're receding. They're shrinking.

There's a new NOVA documentary about the work he's been doing. That will be shown next Tuesday. And Balog also has a new book called "Extreme Ice Now." Is there a point at which a glacier dies, and has your time-lapse photography documented that moment in any glacier's life?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. There's a place in Iceland, actually, that we've come to call the place where glaciers go to die. It's this incredibly beautiful lagoon called Jokulsarlon out in eastern Iceland. And this huge ice sheet pours off the highest mountain in Iceland and comes down into this gigantic tidewater lake. And the ice breaks off into the lake. The icebergs flow across the lake for a few miles. And then they go down this river out into the surf, and the surf heats them up, and those icebergs get turned into global sea level rise.

And this beach by the surf is really eerie, because on each high tide, these blocks of ice get washed up and deposited there. And so you're seeing these fragments of ice that was formed 1,000 years ago. And these icebergs get pushed up onto the beaches, and they sit there. As the, you know, the high tide pushes them up, they're deposited, tide goes out and they sit there until the tide's ready to come back again 12 hours later.

Well, when you walk down this beach, there's these incredible diamonds glittering there in the moonlight or the starlight or the sunlight. It's a fantastic place. And in these diamonds, you're witnessing history disappearing right in front of your eyes.

GROSS: These are ice diamonds you're talking about?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, yeah. Ice diamonds. And these are essentially artifacts of a time 800 or 900 or 1,000 years ago when the snow storms came and created this ice. And inside that ice you're seeing ancient water and you're seeing ancient air molecules. And it's sitting there, embodied in these ice diamonds. And so I've been going along, making a portfolio celebrating the beauty of these unique, very short-lived natural sculptors because right after I shoot them, the high tide comes back again, takes them out to sea and melts them for good and they become part of global sea level rise.

It's a fantastic place to witness time. You know, you really feel mortality coming and going right in front of you. And you really feel geologic process alive. And you also, that's been the real revelation for me, you feel this beauty in the natural sculpture that the confluence of ice and surf and air has created. It sculpts out these unique diamonds, these unique shapes - really beautiful shapes. Each one of them, absolutely unique. And they're just very short term, though, and they go away when the tide comes up again.

GROSS: So, you know, in documenting glaciers and the receding of glaciers, you're also documenting the disappearance of glaciers. And you have some photographs in your time-lapse photography, or maybe it's in your still photography, where you see a spot where a glacier used to be and isn't anymore. Would you describe what one of those spots looks like?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, where the glaciers recede, it's raw - it's just raw dirt and rock that's basically, you know, a natural organic brown, essentially. Because normally a mountain side or valley in these Alpine and Arctic areas, there's a lot of rock around, right? But that rock is normally covered with lichen or moss, and lichen or moss turn it various shades of gray or green. When the glaciers have just been there and they've retreated, the lichen and moss have not had a chance to grow. So you're looking at just these raw, tan rocks.

And as you look up these valleys, you can see what's called the trim line, between - up high, you might see this very dark grey or greenish rock where the plants have had a chance to grow. And down below it, it's much pinker and lighter and more tan, because nothing has had a chance to grow yet. And I've been really struck at the sense of seeing time, you know, you're witnessing something evolving in front of your eyes. It's as if, you know, after Mount St. Helens erupted some years ago, you know, and the volcanic ash blankets the landscape. And suddenly, you have a brand new, fresh landscape. Nothing's alive on it. And the potential of the future is all potential. You know, it's just waiting. Well, that's what it's like here. And, you know, somebody will go back to the valleys that I visited 50 years or 100 years or 500 years from now and they might see a forest there. They'll see a whole ecosystem, a whole civilization of plants and animals that isn't there now. But we were there at the birth.

GROSS: So, you know, you've described some really spectacular things that you've witnessed in documenting the retreat of glaciers, the shrinking of glaciers. Let's talk a little bit about what that means for the planet, for the future of people who live on the planet. First of all, you've been working with a lot of scientists. What are scientists predicting about the future of the ice in the North and South Pole? What are their concerns about how quickly it might be melting?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. You know, these retreating glaciers are the most visible, tangible evidence of climate change on the planet today. Nothing shows it as well as vanishing ice does. This is not about computer models. It's not about statistical projections. This is the real living proof of climate change happening right now. And everybody who has been out in the field, everybody who knows this science in a deep and serious way understands that climate change is real and it's present. It's right now. It's happening right now, and it's also happening a lot faster. And the trends are accelerating more intensely than anybody would've predicted five or 10 years ago. That's the big story here.

I just came back from a big meeting of climate specialists in Copenhagen, a meeting called the Climate Congress that happened last week. And over and over and over again, whether you were talking about ice or atmosphere or ocean or terrestrial ecology and biology, everybody was saying it's happening faster. It's astounding everybody. And the overwhelming message is that the rate of change is accelerating and that there's - the tipping points are either happening right now or they're going to happen in the very near future. You know, we're in a really critical, decisive moment of human history as well as natural history, and we need to wake up and pay attention.

GROSS: And what are some of the biggest changes that will happen as the glaciers melt?

Mr. BALOG: The melting of the glaciers will bring specific changes, particularly global sea level rise. They will also diminish water supplies. As they go away, these downstream civilizations that depend on the water supplies will be troubled. Already in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the end of winter snow packs are down 50 percent in the past 50 years. And cities like Seattle and Portland depend on the runoff from those glaciers and those snowfields. There's going to be less water in the Pacific Northwest for agriculture and drinking in the very near future as there already is right now. It's going to keep diminishing.

But much more importantly, in a geopolitical sense, the civilizations of South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia - in other words China, India, particularly - depends on water that's been stored in the Himalaya and up on the Tibetan plateau. In most of those areas, the glaciers are receding and there's less water being stored. You've got two billion people downstream from those glaciers that need that water supply to be stored there and then flowed out in a modulated fashion over time.

There is going to be widespread disruption when those guys don't have enough agricultural water and drinking water because the glaciers in the Himalaya disappear. That's a really, really, really big deal. Same issue applies east and west of the Andes. Melting glaciers are going to impact water supply all around the world and they're also going to impact rising sea level. The current science is saying very clearly that we're looking at approximately a three foot sea level rise over the next 90 years or 100 years - three foot sea level rise.

That has huge impacts on the communities like Miami that are down at sea level. It has huge impacts on beachfront properties. If you look at any of these maps of what a foot or two or three of sea level rise means up and down the East Coast of the United States, it's a lot. It's big, big flooding impacts. It gives hurricanes the opportunity to have a great deal more impact on seaside communities. The glaciers are - really should be looked at as essentially a canary in the coal mine here. They're a warning signal that there's problems. And the problems apply to earth, air, fire, water and people.

GROSS: My guest is nature photographer James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is James Balog. He's using time-lapse photography and still photos to document receding glaciers and melting ice sheets through his project the Extreme Ice Survey. It's a subject of Tuesday's "NOVA"-National Geographic special on PBS. When we left off, he was explaining that the melting glacial ice could create devastating changes on the planet. So I'm wondering, when you're on the glaciers and you're observing how beautiful they are and how - even how beautiful the meting of them is, at the same time you know that this is a sign of something really dangerous, possibly catastrophic, happening to the planet. Can you keep both of those thoughts in your head at the same time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALOG: Yeah it's really schizophrenic. You've put your finger on something very profound here. You know, my job when I go out there is to celebrate the places and try and create something that's visually provocative and gives you something you haven't seen before and gets you excited because you haven't seen it before. But then all the time hanging over you is this feeling of, my God, everything I'm seeing is disappearing.

This is a very mortal landscape, and it can be crushing sometimes when you really realize what you're looking at. And it can overwhelmingly sad and depressing. And then I kind of pull myself up by the scruff of the neck mentally and say, huh. You don't have the opportunity to be depressed and sad about this. You've got a job to do. You have a story to tell, and it's been your to privilege to be able to speak for these landscapes.

GROSS: Well, the work that you're doing is extraordinary. And even just the fact that you can have cameras in these extreme climates on the ice doing time-lapse work over a period of years - just give us a sense of where you placed the cameras and what kind of care they get as they're recording once an hour, every hour during daylight over a period of two to four years.

Mr. BALOG: You know, these cameras are anchored to cliff faces up above these glaciers. And they're looking down on the glaciers, typically. And we have this elaborate system of aluminum brackets and steel cable and bolts that anchor them to the rock. And they have to shoot every hour, you know, so you need a power supply for that. We have solar panels and we have batteries that are charged by the solar panels, and that's what keeps the cameras alive. But the real crux of this is this ridiculous weather that they're exposed to. We've got cameras in places where the winds are routinely over 100 miles an hour. One of our camera sites in Montana is known to have endured winds that were 160 miles an hour.

The temperatures in some of these locations are down in the realm of 40 below zero, and continuously 25 to 30 below zero. So the equipment has to be able to endure that. So, you know, it's getting hammered, just pounded all the time - and not to mention the fact that there's snow and ice and ultraviolet rays, and in the summer time a lot of rain, particularly in Iceland and Alaska. These cameras have to survive a lot. We've got these fabulous Nikon cameras inside the housings, and these things have been spectacularly reliable. I frankly didn't think that anything could survive these conditions so continuously, but they have.

GROSS: You just got back from the Arctic, and one of the things that you did was check on your cameras there. So how were they doing?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, we just looked in on four cameras that are in Iceland, in these savage places, and the cameras are doing just great. They just keep, you know, firing away. It amazes me. I have these little surrogates for myself out there, like my little robots, my little children - child robots. And it's a warm feeling to go back to some remote place and realize that your little surrogate has been out there, clicking away, watching the landscape for you and that it's still alive and still happy and still doing what it's supposed to be doing.

GROSS: What's the most exciting image that you just took back from the Arctic?

Mr. BALOG: The most exciting picture we just got was at the terminus of this one glacier in Iceland. At the same time, part of the glacier was going away, this huge block of ice just came levitating up from underneath the soil. And it was as if - you know, those pictures of the nuclear submarines popping up through the surface of the Arctic Ocean? That's what this was like. This thing just kind of levitated up out of the earth because the stream erosion has taken the overburden of the ice away from on top of it, and all of a sudden the pressure was released and this thing came up. And now that, of course, is melting away, too. But you see this valley alive. You see the glacier alive. You see the ice alive, and that has blows me away. Every time I open up these cameras and look at the pictures, I'm amazed to see how alive the ice is, how alive the rivers are, how alive the evolution this landscape is. This is not abstract. It's not a theory. It's observable, and these cameras are seeing it.

GROSS: Well, James Balog, you're during extraordinary work. Thanks for sharing you descriptions of it with us. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Mr. BALOG: Well, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: James Balog is the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. His work as featured in the "NOVA"-National Geographic special that will be showing Tuesday on PBS. His companion book is called "Extreme Ice Now." NPR's daily photo blog, the Picture Show, has put together a slide show of Balog's work, including except of the special. You can find it on our Web site:

I'm Terry Gross, and we'll close with a song, a great song made famous by Frank Sinatra: "All or Nothing at All." The lyric was written by Jack Lawrence, who died Sunday at the age of 96. Here's Sinatra's 1939 version with Harry James and his orchestra.

(Soundbite of song, "All or Nothing at All)

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) All or nothing at all. Half a love, never appealed to me. If your heart, never could yield to me, then I'd rather have nothing at all.

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