Chasing Ice: Photographer James Balog on a Glacial Adventure

Inspired by an Arctic assignment for National Geographic, photographer James Balog decided to chronicle the planet’s disappearing glaciers through a three-year, $3 million project called the Extreme Ice Survey. With the help of time-lapse cameras and scientists Dr. Tad Pfeffer and Dr. Jason Box, Balog recorded images of a rapidly changing landscape, which resulted in the new documentary film Chasing Ice. Pop Omnivore’s Sasha Ingber spoke with Balog about the surprising drama of watching ice melt.

How did the idea for this film come about?

There was no intention of making a film. It was obvious that we needed some kind of video coverage for fundraising, and we sensed there might be some sort of cinematic escapade. We wanted to record the project, but I got tired of all the cameramen and the sound guys so I said, “Okay, I think I’ll stop doing this.” Shortly after this, the director and co-producer, Jeff Orlowski, said, “You know there is a lot of footage, and I think I can make a film from it.”

What was one of the hardest parts of doing the extreme ice survey?

The electronics sometimes didn’t work—and at one point, we had as many as 48 time-lapse cameras running at one time. We’d go out and set up a camera and after extensive testing, all of a sudden it wouldn’t work. It had to do with atmospheric humidity, weirdly enough.

Why are you fascinated by ice?

I was inspired by a book I saw in graduate school that had black and white photos shot by Austin Post, a research scientist for the United States Geological Survey at that time. The guy had an understanding of glaciers that was as sensitive and intimate as people are to their spouses. In my head, I can still see these glittering icy peaks with gigantic glaciers pouring down and big black pieces of ice separating the ice streams in extraordinary shapes—otherworldly places that were far outside of the reality we live in.

Why would people want to see melting ice?

It’s an adventure film that unravels the secrets of the ice. It takes place in these extraordinary wilderness settings and beyond that, the glaciers give you a three-dimensional visual of how climate change reshapes the world. You can see and hear and touch climate change in action when you see the images—a relatively abstract concept is brought to life.

Was there a moment when you went from being a climate change skeptic to a believer?

Once I learned that the core of climate change was not about computer models but about empirical evidence from Iceland and Antarctica. Once I understood that the evidence was tangible. Then I thought, “This is real.”

Do you have one favorite glacier?

No it’s like trying to choose your favorite child.

Was there any ice that grew over time? Did any totally disappear?

No ice grew. Some remained relatively static—a couple in Montana were subtly shrinking. But some in Greenland were dumping huge amounts into the ocean, moving forward and backward. There are others in terminus retreat, such as Mendenhall, which is close to Juneau in Alaska, as well as Columbia Glacier in Alaska, Ilulissat in Greenland, and Sólheimajökull in Iceland.

What has been the most unexpected part of your work with ice?

Literally the first time I was out on the field with scientists—guys who had been in this field for decades—they said that these things just kind of sit here. That they’re relatively static and “blobbian.” The revelation is that there is no such thing as a “glacial pace.” These landforms respond on a weekly, daily, hourly basis to the changing weather conditions around them. They are nearly animate characters.

By Sasha Ingber

Changing Planet