Glacier Photographer James Balog on 'Chasing Ice'

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. In a new study out this week in the journal Science, the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are losing more than three times as much ice each year as they were in the 1990s. I'm sure that news will come as no surprise to my next guest.

James Balog has been documenting the melting glaciers in Greenland in an effort to get people to pay attention and believe in global warming. In 2007, he started the Extreme Ice Survey, and his quest took him to glaciers in Alaska, Montana, Greenland and Iceland. And in these remote and treacherous corners of the planet, the ice survey team set up automated cameras to snap photos year-round to see how the ice is melting, and the glaciers are collapsing and retreating.

This glacier project is the focus of a dramatic new documentary called "Chasing Ice," directed by Jeff Orlowski. In the film, Balog's time-lapse pictures show enormous glaciers receding and thinning, and on video, he captures all that meltwater that's falling into the ocean, contributing to rising sea levels and what I think is - and he may feel is the highlight of the film also, there's a huge calving of an iceberg that you watch - they watch for over an - almost an hour.

Let me give you a short clip from the film.


JAMES BALOG: The glacier's retreating, but it's also thinning at the same time. It's like air being let out of a balloon. You can see what's called the trim-line. It's the high-water mark of the glacier, in 1984. That vertical change is the height of the Empire State Building.

FLATOW: And that picture, if you'd like to see that change, a dramatic change, it's on our website. at It really is dramatic. And "Chasing Ice," the film, is now playing in select theaters around the country.

James Balog is joining us. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BALOG: Greetings. Thank you.

FLATOW: How's your knee doing?

BALOG: Oh, well, it's not what it was 25 years ago, but nothing's as strong as it was 25 years ago. So I'm doing fine. I'm still...

FLATOW: It's sort of an inside story about - we watched you in the film as your knee was deteriorating, climbing up and down all those glaciers.

BALOG: It was not a pretty picture, and I did some damage, but I go on. I can still climb. I can still ski. And life is good.

FLATOW: This news, I spoke for you about this news coming out this week about the retreating and melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. I'm sure this is not a surprise to you to hear about that.

BALOG: No, it isn't. But frankly, the numbers that were assembled by this absolutely top-level consortium of researchers from around the world, those numbers are still kind of staggering. It just shows that kind of the worst fears that everyone has had of recent years have been confirmed by the best measurements in the world. And the loss of these ice sheets is accelerating.

FLATOW: In your film, you went to places that - let me put it this way - sane people would not go. You climbed up ice. You climbed up ice mountains. You had crampons. You almost fell into crevices. You did everything, you know, to document, stick your camera in places that you could actually watch the water, meltwater flowing, the icebergs changing. What motivated you to do all of these things?

BALOG: Well, you know, strangely enough, I love these places. This whole project is really a gesture of love for these landscapes. I find them endlessly fascinating, visually. I love the challenge of the adventures. I love the colors and the shapes. It's just a fantastic environment. But, yeah, through it all was this profound passion and motivation to recognize that there's a monumental story here.

You know, it's similar to - you know, if you suddenly were dropped onto the beaches of D-Day in Normandy in 1944 with a camera, what could you do, what would you do, except shoot the pictures of the action? Well, we're in the midst of a monumental geological, historic change going on right now, and I happen to have the skills and the interest and the aptitudes to be able to represent it properly. And so it's my burden, as well as my curse and my privilege to be here and to photograph this stuff.

FLATOW: And you choose ice and large glaciers, because that's something you can really watch, and people can relate to. They can actually see this stuff change over time.

BALOG: Yeah, it takes the science out of the realm of abstraction and computer models and graphs, and it brings it into a dimensional reality that people can understand. You can see it in the images. And ice is, you know, it's a tangible canary in the global coal mine. It's the place where we can see and touch and hear and feel climate change in action.

FLATOW: Give us a little thumbnail sketch of the Extreme Ice Survey. What was the goal, and how did you carry it out?

BALOG: Well, we started to deploy the time-lapse cameras in 2007. And originally, we put 25 cameras out at various glaciers around the world. The cameras were in Alaska, Montana, here in the United States, in Greenland and Iceland. And we bolted the cameras to bedrock alongside these glaciers, turned them on and let them shoot every hour around the clock, as long as it was daylight.

As we speak here today, we have 34 cameras out on 16 glaciers in those same areas, plus at Mount Everest in Nepal. And the cameras are shooting every 20 or 30 minutes now. So we've amassed this million-image archive of how these landscapes have changed.

FLATOW: And how long can you continue to do this for?

BALOG: Good question. Well, you know, when this project started, I thought it would be a three-year project. And in three years, we thought, well, why don't we keep it going until five years? And that's a nice, round number. And at about year four-and-a-half, we realized we can never stop, because the weight of history and the weight of this record is so tremendous, we need to keep it going.

And for that matter, we feel like we have an obligation to preserve the memory of these landscapes for people of the future, who will be looking at landscapes that will be profoundly different than what we're seeing here today in 2012.

FLATOW: And the time lapse, that seems to be the key. The time lapse is so dramatic, that you can watch the ice retreating in these glaciers. You can watch the melting going on. And as you pointed out in the film, "Chasing Ice," it happened so much faster than you thought. You had to actually pan the camera around to keep up with the ice melting.

BALOG: Yeah, there were so many surprises. In the very first few months, we started to see activity on the glaciers recorded on the cameras, losing ice at a rate that we never imagined we would catch. We really thought we wouldn't see much for a couple years, and we were seeing things that were worth looking at in a month or two.

And then, as the project went on year after year, we started to have to pivot the cameras up these valleys and follow the retreat of the ice as the ice - as the glaciers were disappearing up the valleys. I mean, we have - we have one glacier in Alaska, the Columbia Glacier, that's receded a couple miles since we started.

And a new paper that I was a coauthor on - the lead authors were Tad Pfeffer from the University of Colorado and Liam Colgan, Liam Colgan was actually the leader author, this was just published last week - and it says that the Columbia Glacier will probably retreat 15 more miles before it stops. So we're in the midst of really monumental geologic change right now.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can take a phone call or two. Let's go to Terry(ph) in Brewstertown, Tennessee. Hi, Terry.

TERRY: Thanks, Ira, and your researchers. The deniers cannot provide one example for every 100 examples where the - man is cooling the Earth, versus heating it. And most of the time, it's 1,000 times more heating than the cooling that we do.

BALOG: Yes, that's well-put. And that's well-demonstrated by this fact that the climate is changing, and the precipitation patterns are changing, and the warming is happening in some places - in most places - is very, very, very well-documented.

FLATOW: But climate skeptics will try to take out from whatever they see, you know, a little bit evidence for their own way of thinking about it. Can you change any - your film is so - makes such an interesting case. Have you been able to change any skeptics' minds who've seen it?

BALOG: I am happy to say that in a number of auditoriums where we've presented either my lecture or the film, we've had people come up to us afterwards and say, you know, I worked in the oil and gas industry for 40 years, or, you know, I was working for Standard Oil for decades, and I thought this whole climate change story was a lot of rubbish, it was liberal propaganda, it was academic propaganda, whatever, and I didn't realize how true it is. And so thank you for showing this to me.

So that's been immensely gratifying, that the tangible photographic, artistic evidence can move people so dramatically.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in before the break. Let's go to Brian in Grand Rapids. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Good afternoon. Can't wait to see the film. My question is: How long do they predict the last glaciers to retreat from Glacier National Park in Montana?

BALOG: Interesting. We were just up there in August, actually. I was leading a group of U.S. Army veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan into the back country to show them the consequences of climate change. And we just produced a little film about that. And what seems to be the case is that Glacier National Park will be completely devoid of ice in about 30 years, and we will need a new name for it. And one possibility, of course, is Glacier-less National Park.


FLATOW: Does that - that answers your question, Brian?

BRIAN: Yeah, I was wondering: Would there still be ice up in the Cirques, up there near the horns and stuff?

BALOG: Maybe, tiny little patches hiding in the shade, and that's kind of what's happening right now. You can go to some of these basins, particularly by the Grinnell Glacier, which is one of the classic, typed-case(ph) glaciers up there, and there's not much of a glacier left, except this little patch hiding in the shade deep inside the Cirque.

FLATOW: Do you have any confidence that people in this country - or at least in the government, or the Congress - are going to believe that this is real, or come to think of it as not a hoax?

BALOG: Well, you know, can't - I try not to even use the word believe. I try and get people to speak about the knowledge, to think about the evidence that's in front of them. I worry that, particularly on the climate-denier side, this whole story has been turned into a question of ideology and doctrine and dogma instead of an issue of using a rational human brain and looking at the evidence around you rationally.

So I prefer to think of it in terms of, yes, people, when given the proper evidence, proper information, proper emotional response to events in the world around them or images like ours, they are plenty intelligent to say yeah, this is real, and we have to do something about it.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to come back and talk plenty more with our guest James Balog about his new film. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with James Balog about his film. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. "Chasing Ice." Stay with us.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with James Balog. He's an environmental photographer, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. He's really the star of a new film called "Chasing Ice." It's a documentary, which is directed by Jeff Orlowski, in which they planted dozens of cameras in critical glacier areas around the world and photographed the melting ice - not only the diminishing glaciers, how low they can get.

It's really, really fascinating. You know, people think about them retreating, James, but they don't talk about them actually getting - shrinking inside.

BALOG: Yeah, it's actually like air being let out of a balloon. You know, the glaciers, as the termini are retreating, they're also deflating from the surface. And, in fact, the vast majority of the ice volume that's lost is from the surface deflation. And in places like the Andes, down in Bolivia and Peru, the glaciers are deflating at about the rate of about three or four feet vertically per year, which is a tremendous rate of ice loss.

FLATOW: And also, you document the rivers and almost oceans of water that are coming off these glaciers.

BALOG: That was a huge revelation for me. Until I started going out to Greenland and photographing these places back in 2006, I hadn't realized that, basically, there was a universe of hundreds and hundreds of lakes all over the surface of the ice sheet. And there are these beautiful, gorgeous, sapphire-blue lakes, that they're anywhere from, you know, maybe a quarter mile to a couple miles across.

And they drain into these sinuous river channels that snake across the surface of the ice until they hit these crevasse fields, and then the water will drop down through these crevasses a couple thousand feet to the bottom of the ice sheet, hit the bedrock, and the water flows out to sea.

Now, of course, you can't see anything once the water drops down through these channels, but it's beautiful, incredibly beautiful country.

FLATOW: It is beautiful. In the film, you talk about how you used to be skeptical that humans were the cause of climate change. What changed your outlook?

BALOG: Well, it was - you know, it was a progressive thing. And, say, 20 years ago, I thought that this was all about computer models, and I recognized that at the time, computer models were not terribly robust. They happen to be very, very good now, but 20 years ago, maybe there were a bit more sketchy, and I think most modelers would accept that.

So what I didn't realize was that the real evidence for this whole story was in the record of ancient climates that had been pulled up from inside the layers of ice in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The scientists are able to look at the nature of the oxygen that's trapped in those layers of ice and deduce what the oscillation of climate has been, going back all the way, almost a million years.

And we can see a very, very, very clear pattern of how we are out of synch with what nature naturally does. Nature is not natural anymore. So when I learned that there was this amazing empirical record in the ice sheets, I then accepted that climate change was real - this was back in the late '90s - and from that point, realized I had to find a way to photograph it. And a whole series of steps happened, and eventually, that turned into the Extreme Ice Survey.

FLATOW: Let's go to Rodney in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Hi, Rodney.

RODNEY: How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

RODNEY: Listen, in Tennessee the first thing that I'll be told - and I read this yesterday on the net, and today in the local paper, on the back page. And the first thing I'll be told is two weeks ago, it said that Antarctica had actually gained ice. And anywhere in the world where there's one event out of 99 on warming, there's one event where it's cold, or it's gained ice, that's the end of it. It's a cycle. We don't know what we're doing. Sit back and let the universe do its thing. How do you argue with that?

BALOG: Yeah, that Antarctic thing has been really distorted by forces that would like to create public confusion. The reality is that there was an unusual wind cycle in the Antarctic that spread the sea ice, which is very different from the land ice, out quite a bit further.

And so the climate-denier community is always trying to seize on these aberrant events and distort them for political purposes. You know, the thing that I find so striking is the realization - in fact, my colleague Tad Pfeffer really was the one who first expressed this. He said, you know, look: Art and science are in pursuit of clarity, and the pundit and lobbyist community that's in service to denying this story is in pursuit of confusion.

And it's inside this cloud of confusion, this cultural, societal confusion, that the status quo can be perpetuated. And that's wrong. We have all the information we need. The story is very clear, and we need to deal with climate change.

FLATOW: Rodney, thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. So where do you go from here? What are you next steps now that the film is out? "Chasing Ice" is in limited theaters, correct? You have to pick and find it.

BALOG: Well, it's actually been exploding across the country. It's done so well in the cities that it started in - New York, Chicago, L.A. - that the theater chains are picking it up and disseminating it quite a bit more. This is happening on almost a daily basis right now. And I think we're in about 60 different towns and cities already.

So you go on the website, and the whole list of what we're doing is on there. There's also a book called "Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers," a 300-page art and architecture book published by Rizzoli that celebrates this beauty of these landscapes and is a synopsis of what we've been doing out there since 2005.

So going forward, the time-lapse cameras go on indefinitely. Those 34 cameras that I mentioned earlier will stay alive. I would like to extend the project down into South America, possibly also the Antarctic Peninsula, but I definitely, but this time next year, would like to have about 10 different sites in South America that we're looking at, as well.

And, on top of it, there are basically a limitless number of visual stories about how humans are altering the basic physics, chemistry, biology of this planet. And I've got several big ideas about how to address some other stories beyond ice, stories that are more right here in our own backyard.

So that's a lifetime project that I'll be pursuing underneath this new organization that we just started, called the Earth Vision Trust.

FLATOW: Well, as someone who has visited Antarctica years ago and still has trouble verbalizing what I saw because it was so awesome and hard to describe to people, you have done a terrific job in this film of showing the vastness of these ice fields and the melting, and you make a terrific case there, showing what's going on in the glaciers.

So I - anybody who wants to see "Chasing Ice," wants to see terrific photography, very well-done from an artistic point of view and telling a great story, I'd highly recommend it. And I wish you, James Balog, good luck in the future and your work.

BALOG: Well, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. James Balog, who's a time-lapse glacier photographer, is featured in the documentary "Chasing Ice," and obviously other books, you can see - watch it(ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular