By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Climate change is altering the planet in fearsome ways. Ice is melting, oceans are warming, drought is sizzling crops, heat is fueling wildfires and storms are becoming more powerful.

And sometimes, I don’t feel like watching yet another movie about these horrific changes.

Psychologists would say that’s because people, faced with such enormous happenings over which they have little control, become paralyzed, even depressed.

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Chasing Ice (Photo: James Balog)

And so it was with some trepidation that I settled in to watch Chasing Ice, a movie about the rapidly vanishing glaciers that contain the majority of earth’s freshwater.

This film drives home the reality of climate change, but it didn’t leave me or my fellow viewers feeling helpless, and it didn’t harangue us with a fire hose of facts. Rather it did what great movies are supposed to do, and what the film’s protagonist has been working for years to do: It showed us that the earth’s warming temperatures and seas are melting arctic ice at a scary pace.

What you see is haunting, devastating. Real. Climate change.

Perhaps most captivating is the film’s inescapable juxtaposition of destruction and beauty. We see the dirty trail left by retreating ice – captured by time lapse photography. But the camera also dwells on the tranquil beauty of icebergs, ice sheets and glaciers. The deep crevasses or moulins with their racing rivers of ice water are a wondrous landscape, but they hide a terrifying phenomenon. All that water is rushing out to sea.

This homage to the frozen part of our planet, and to the incredible dedication of  photographer James Balog as he reveals climate change to a sleeping public with arresting visuals, is far from dispiriting. It is inspiring.

But let’s back up.

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James Balog installs a camera that will use time-lapse photography to document the retreat and advance of the Columbia Glacier in  Alaska.

Balog, the subject of this 2012 documentary, which is now available on DVD, began his adventure/ice love affair in 2005, when he was assigned to photograph evidence of climate change for National Geographic. A self-described climate skeptic at the time, Balog became persuaded beyond all doubt that carbon emissions are causing massive havoc in the arctic and worldwide.

The assignment evolved into a project that Balog founded called The Extreme Ice Survey, in which the photographer, who’s also a mountaineer and a geologist, set up two dozen encased cameras to take time lapse photos of retreating glaciers over the next months and years.

Among his crew was Jeff Orlowski, a recent Stanford grad and aspiring photographer. Orlowski served as a videographer for Balog as they trudged across the Arctic, to Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, painstakingly documenting the retreat of glaciers and the loss of ice sheets calving into the seas. The protégé ultimately convinced the veteran photographer to allow him to tell his story on film.

To Orlowski, the director/producer of Chasing Ice, the film was a documentary about the Extreme Ice Survey and yes, climate change, but it is also an adventure story.

“There were many challenges just dealing with the camera in the cold, and there were life threatening circumstances for the whole team,” Orlowski said, in an interview this week promoting the release of the DVD.

Trailing Balog certainly appears to have been an adventure. The camera follows the relentless photographer/adventurer as he climbs mountains and dangles into ice crevasses in pursuit of the story. His crew takes many risks as well. In one scene, members camp on a windy, icy mountain ledge anticipating the calving of a Greenland glacier. They (and we) are rewarded with incredible footage, but not before their tent almost flies away.

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Chasing Ice in Iceland, with an EIS crew member providing scale to the photo. (Photo: James Balog)

But the payoff could be great. Balog’s work, which continues, is raising awareness and changing minds, Orlowski said.

“One of the problems with climate change is that this issue is invisible. By every rubric, we cannot see with our naked eye the changes that are happening with temperature and carbon dioxide. So for the average person, how do they understand what this means and the implications?”

Balog’s time lapses break through; they’re irrefutable evidence that the planet is rapidly changing, he says.

“The time lapses of these changing glaciers is really just one small way in which James has figured out to visualize this issue,” says Orlowski, who has since experienced two more personal brushes with climate change when his house in Boulder was threatened by wildfires and again this year when it was flooded.

“For our whole team it’s so clear and obvious that climate change is happening. I think this is the single biggest issue that society has to deal with. We as a species are changing the fundamental nature of nature.”

“. . . Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take a lot more imagery and a lot more content before society as a whole understands the implications.”

More on ‘Chasing Ice’:

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