Imagine images of vast glaciers rising high above an icy landscape. Envision seeing nothing but white ice and bright blue sky for as far as the eye can see. To many, this landscape is not one we’d want in our everyday lives, but it is one in which we still see tremendous beauty and majesty. These harsh, ice-covered locations have been around for tens of thousands of years and so are full of history – biological, geological, climatological. They seem symbols of permanence and strength. And yet they have now begun to crumble before our very eyes.
This is the scene set by James Balog’s award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice. The film is only showing in a small number of cities nationwide, but I highly recommend it to those who have the opportunity to see it.
Chasing Ice chronicles James Balog’s project – Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which snaps hourly photos of glaciers over a number of years. It’s goal: to capture the changes occurring amongst several of the world’s prominent glaciers (30,000 – 100,000 years old) as a result of a changing climate. “The story is in the ice somehow,” says Balog of climate change.
The Arctic region is one of extremes, so the effects of climate change are felt there earlier and to a greater degree than elsewhere. In fact, changes occurring in the Arctic will trickle down to impact the rest of the world. How so? Glaciers are melting, thinning, receding – basically becoming smaller each year. We know that Greenland’s ice sheet melted more this year than any other year on record. Some 96% of glaciers worldwide are receding or have become extinct in recent years. But that’s not the whole story. Melting glaciers and ice sheets are expected to cause sea levels to rise 1.5 to 3 feet within this century. This degree of sea level rise could displace 150 million people (over 2% of global population).
Melting is just one impact of warming among many, but Balog asserts that glaciers are like the canary in the proverbial coalmine – they should serve as a warning to us that something is off kilter. We can’t just move to another Earth, but we can make changes to our lifestyles before too much damage is done. This is the core of Balog’s message – something major is happening, so now is the time to act.
Balog’s photography and video footage portray this message stunningly. The film shares footage of a massive glacial calving event where a piece of ice the size of Manhattan (except 3 times taller) broke off within 75 minutes. It was truly mouth-dropping. His photos show the progression of melting and recession of major glaciers, with some retreating so far that the camera had to be moved to capture the new limits. The Columbia Glacier in Alaska receded 9 miles in the last 10 years after retreating only 8 miles over the previous 100 years! The changes to these landscapes are huge and undeniable. Balog’s photographs give us visible proof of the manifestations of climate change.
Of course Balog is not the first to tell us about glacial melting; scientists have long known this is occurring. But what Balog does is show these changes to the world for the first time. He captures on film the steady and dramatic decreases by these historic glaciers. Statistics and facts only have so much power over us because we can’t conceptualize the sheer magnitude of what is happening. But Balog’s images are so gripping and so telling that we can’t help but feel concern over the rapid and stark changes underway.
For me, Chasing Ice accomplished exactly what Balog set out to do – it caught my attention and educated me about the extent of glacial melting. It is a powerful film, one that is well worth watching.