JAMES BALOG, a photographer and avid mountaineer, used to believe that climate change was over-hyped and over-politicised. But after visiting the Arctic to photograph glaciers in 2005 he was convinced that the impact was undeniable. “You could see landscapes that physically evoked a sense of mortality, retreat and change,” he says. “I had looked at a lot of glaciers for a lot of years before that but I had never seen places where it was quite so expressive.”
In 2007, he founded the Extreme Ice Survey, a long-term visual art and science project to record the shrinking of the Earth’s glaciers using dozens of time-lapse cameras placed in 16 glacial locations around the world, such as in Alaska, Greenland and the Himalayas. “Chasing Ice”, a new film directed by Jeff Orlowski, documents this project. It follows Mr Balog and his team across the Arctic as they collect the photo and video data, and illustrates the dramatic changes in the landscape over the last five years.
Mr Balog spoke to The Economist about the challenges of the project and why we should confront climate change.
“Chasing Ice” makes clear that the Extreme Ice Survey was an act of faith. You had no idea if it would work.
I look at the idea now—the equipment, the location—and I think, “it seems perfectly simple”. But it was not in the least bit obvious when we started that whole exercise five and a half years ago. It was a gigantic act of faith. And a really big deal to fund and build all of the cameras. To turn these basic off-the-shelf cameras into systems that could withstand minus-40 degree temperatures, hurricane-force winds, torrential rain and blizzard conditions.
There is a moment in the film when you discover one of the cameras in Alaska is malfunctioning and you literally weep in frustration.
The thing that is not evident in the film is that the majority of the tension there was because we already had a dozen cameras, of the same system, on a US airforce plane flying up to Greenland. We had a six-figure financial commitment in the field deployment of those cameras over the coming weeks, and half a dozen people involved in the field programme.
All those expenses and all those helicopters—as I stood there at the edge of that glacier, it was not at all clear that I was going to be able to succeed.
When watching the time-lapse footage of the receding glaciers, it is almost unbelievable how fast these glaciers are shrinking. Did the results shock you?
It was completely stunning that we saw as much as we did almost right away. And it continues to be an amazing experience as an observer, a scientist, a photographer, to open those cameras and get those downloads every single time. It still kind of rattles the mind every time we get fresh pictures.
This is happening fast, isn’t it?.
Absolutely. I figured we wouldn’t really have much to look at for about three years. And then, only if everything went perfectly. But to discover that after a month or two, or three, or four, we were seeing this epic action; we were truly stunned.
Why do you think climate change is such a divisive issue?
Climate change should not fundamentally be seen as a political or partisan issue, but it has been turned into a political football primarily by the climate deniers who have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo. That includes certain industrial interests, financial interests and political interests. There is an enormous amount of weight and firepower that is lined up behind keeping things as they are. They have done a terribly effective job of spreading misinformation, confusion and skepticism.
The film, with the haunting beauty of the ice, feels like an elegy to the end of an era. Is that how you feel when you are there?
All the time. There is an acute sense of time passing, an acute sense of mortality, an acute sense of history in the making with this project. And history is in the making. These landscapes are being reshaped as you and I talk here. And the people of the future, decades and centuries in the future, will look at these pictures and marvel at what was and is no more.
And the other thing that will happen when they look at these pictures is they will wonder why the people of the techno-industrial world were not paying better attention to this issue when we had all this evidence to hand. It isn’t just about my pictures. The evidence comes from thousands of researchers in dozens of different disciplines all around the world who have studied this issue. And the evidence all points in the same direction. We have the evidence, we know what’s going on, we have no excuse. We should not be turning away from this issue.
“Chasing Ice” is being screened in America, Canada and Britain