Chasing Ice: Could Time-Lapse Photography Save the Planet?

The Extreme Ice Survey, an artistic and scientific project founded by award-winning photographer James Balog, has 27 cameras pointed at 18 glaciers around the world. Together, they snap 8,000 frames worth of time-lapse footage per year. Thus the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) is able to capture alterations to the arctic environment—changes that might seem to be slow, glacially so, are rendered dramatic. Almost equally dramatic was the organization’s beginning, which is documented in a film called Chasing Ice, now screening at South by Southwest.

© 2010 Extreme Ice Survey

© 2010 Extreme Ice Survey

Rappelling into Survey Canyon, looking down at moulin channel dropping meltwater 2,000 vertical feet into crevasses through the Greenland Ice Sheet. EIS director James Balog is shown.

Between equipment unable to withstand the icy conditions and a faulty timer in an early camera, the project had a difficult start. “I thought I was going to buy off-the-shelf parts and I was naïve about the hardware. I ended up designing custom stuff,” Balog says. “We had a lot of money on the line, we had a lot of plans on the line, a lot of people on the line.”

It took months of trial and error, but their system of Nikon D200 DSLR cameras, solar panels, batteries, heavy-duty tripods, waterproof cases and wind-proof anchors is now reliable. Some of the cameras are checked on and their images downloaded only once a year.

Balog’s initial attraction to the ice was one of aesthetics—“the sculpture, the beauty, the light, the form, the color,” he says—and a forthcoming photo book from EIS will showcase those facets of the glaciers. But the technology innovated by Balog and his team doesn’t just allow EIS to take those pictures: the Survey aims to put them to good use. Balog, who had been a skeptic about climate change until about 20 years ago, says that seeing the evidence of climate change may make a difference where human stubbornness otherwise persists. He takes a zen perspective on change, believing that whatever landscape is underneath the glaciers, to be revealed by their melting, will also be perfect in its own way, but says he is disheartened by the extent to which people refuse to recognize their place in causing that change and its inevitable climatic, political and military consequences.

“The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that our aesthetics were the pathway to communicate the science effectively, the knowledge base that the scientists had,” Balog says. “The visual information can only be part of the puzzle but that’s the piece of the puzzle that I know how to put in the board.”

© 2007 Extreme Ice Survey

James Balog hangs off a cliff by Columbia Glacier, Alaska, to install a time-lapse camera.

The footage from Chasing Ice dates back to the very beginning of the project. At the time, Balog predicted he would want to have it on film but had no definite plans in mind. It was not until 2009 that Jeff Orlowski, who had begun as an unpaid assistant cameraman for EIS, asked Balog for the rights to put the video to use. The resulting film, directed by Orlowski, was given the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired for TV broadcast by the National Geographic Channel.

Although Balog was not involved in the film’s production, he sees it as a part of the larger mission of EIS. “I hope this becomes part of the wake-up call that will jostle people out of their intellectual hibernation,” he says, “and at the same time, if you stand back from all of that and you just look at the incredible beauty of what we’ve been shooting the past six years, it’s mind-boggling.”

Chasing Ice is playing at South by Southwest on March 15 and March 16. Find out more here.

James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, is a recipient of the Leica Medal of Excellence, International League of Conservation Photographers Award, North American Nature Photography Association “Outstanding Photographer of the Year” award and others. Read more about him and the Extreme Ice Survey on their websites.

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