Chasing Ice: Documenting Climate Change in Pictures of Retreating Glaciers

Five years ago photographer James Balog collaborated on a National Geographic magazine story called The Big Thaw, documenting the retreat of the world’s glaciers in what has been the most popular National Geographic article on the environment since then. This led to further visual documentation and most recently a film called Chasing Ice.

At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Chasing Ice won an award for cinematography, and it has received numerous accolades in other film festivals. In the film, Balog sends a couple of young videographers to Ilulissat, Greenland to monitor an iceberg in case it breaks off into the sea, an event scientists term calving. Balog explains how climatic events that typically occur on a geologic time scale are now observable on a human time scale.

The videographers camp out in a tent in extreme weather conditions for a couple of weeks before activity occurs. When it does, they witness the largest calving event in history ever caught on film. An iceberg the size of lower Manhattan falls off into the sea, an episode spectacular at the same time tragic.

In 2007 Balog set up a couple of dozen time-lapse cameras in Alaska, Iceland and Greenland to capture visual evidence of icebergs retreating due to warming global temperatures. The evidence is shocking. During the film, Balog holds up a memory disk from the camera that captured the demise of an iceberg that will never come back. “This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization and it’s stored right here.”

In the Q&A session following the film, Balog took the stage with director Jeff Orlowski, a novice filmmaker who achieved enormous success in his debut. Ambitious and confident, he is affectionately known as “Champ” within his family. Orlowski recognized the overwhelmingly positive feedback already generated by the film.

“It’s been amazing… We’ve had people come up to us after seeing the film (saying) they’ve started companies inspired to make a difference through venture capital in sustainable energy. We’ve had people write songs with the message that we need to take action,” Orlowski explained.

U.S. history has been riddled with dark spots—slavery, child labor and women being denied the right to vote. “These were basic cultural, social underpinnings of their time that we now look at and go ‘those guys were crazy,’” Balog said. “I think the people of the future—25, 50, 100 years hence—will look back at this time and go ‘what were they thinking’. So it’s incumbent upon us to keep taking those individual steps to push the society from where it is now to where it needs to go (regarding climate change).”

Balog presented his findings at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, so he is well versed in advocating and communicating for action on climate change.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. “There is no magic bullet.” Balog pointed out the pitfall of solving a complex problems with a single action. He illustrated this idea with a line from Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah used to say, ‘tell me the one thing I can do to help starving children in Somalia and change the world and I’ll do it.”

Balog continued, “Sorry, there isn’t one thing. This is a progressive problem. It requires steps… You take one step to reduce your carbon footprint. You take another step to change the opinion of the person down the street from you, and you keep going. There is no single action here… Collectively, we can change” [our trajectory on climate change].

Chasing Ice opened November 9 in New York and will open November 16 in Washington DC. Other show times are here. Balog also published a new book with fantastic photographs, “ICE: Portraits of the World’s Vanishing Glaciers.”

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Chad Lipton is currently starting a business delivering clean energy services in Cote d’Ivoire. Previously, Chad worked for National Geographic where he managed a grant program to fund entrepreneurs delivering innovative energy solutions to communities facing economic, climate change, environmental and other challenges. In 2013, Chad submitted the winning idea to be the subject matter for National Geographic's challenge competition, called the Terra Watt Prize. He helped develop the prize objective, which is to address the challenges of energy access by facilitating the flow of capital between entrepreneurs and investors and also to identify viable business models. Before National Geographic, Chad worked for Elysian Energy as an energy auditor, carrying out site visits and analysis in the residential energy field. Prior to Elysian Energy, Chad worked in the field of carbon management, where he performed site verification for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. From 2004-07, Chad worked as an environmental health specialist in Africa carrying out water and sanitation projects in Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique. Chad has master’s degrees in Environmental Health Science and International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University.