“Chasing Ice” – Big Science Adventure

You’ve probably heard that climate change is melting the Arctic, but it’s another thing to see it happening in front of you:


Or to see what it does to an icescape:

Canyon cut by meltwater into a Greenland glacier, June 2009 (c) James Balog

That’s why James Balog, a well-known nature photographer, founded the Extreme Ice Survey in 2007.   He wanted to show people directly what climate change was doing to the earth.   Greenland has seen three times the temperature rise of the overall earth, and it is melting at twice its normal rate.   The EIS mission was to place time-lapse cameras on glaciers all over the Arctic and see what happened to them over the course of years.  He was backed by National Geographic and the NSF, and had science advice from the University of Colorado.

He has now turned his work into the movie “Chasing Ice”, which I had the pleasure of seeing recently.  It’s full of striking images.  It goes easy on the standard shots of stranded polar bears, and concentrates on the fantastic forms of melting ice.    There’s a bit too much of Balog himself, including a painful scene where he cries on finding a broken camera.   Their initial setup didn’t work all that well, and most of the pictures were lost.

Yet there’s also a striking bit where he’s standing in front of a melting glacier, holding up a tiny flash card from a camera.  “This holds a record of a lost landscape,” he says.  “That will never be seen again in the history of civilization.”  Once these glaciers go, they’re not coming back.   CO2 levels will not come down again so long as billions of people are still burning stuff.

I also got to see a presentation at MIT by Adam LeWinter, who was the main engineer on the project, and installed a lot of the cameras himself.    The cameras were Nikon D200s installed inside Pelican cases.  These are tough plastic briefcases used to ship electronics, and I’ve carried them through airports myself.  He added a 5W solar panel and a control board to trigger the camera when it was light.   In a better world commercial cameras could be hacked to do this, but not in this one.   The control boards failed on the first version, causing the loss of a year of images in many locations.    Lots also got knocked over by storms, in spite of being tied down with guy wires.   He showed a picture of one with a padlock on it and said “Many of them were in places no human being had ever gone before, mainly because there would be no reason to.  Still, we  padlocked them because, you know, bears.”

His biggest adventure was in Greenland.  He and another guy camped near a glacier  hoping to see a calving event.  That’s where an ice cliff breaks off and falls into the sea.    They sat there and watched and shivered for three weeks as ice very, very slowly oozed downhill.  One night a storm ripped away one tent and smashed the other, so they could only crawl inside.   Then there was a rumble, and a five-mile-wide iceberg the size of lower Manhattan cracked off and sent a tsunami out into the Atlantic.   Chunks of ice five hundred feet thick broke away and flipped over in front of them.  It was the first time anyone had ever filmed one!

The audience asked a lot of good questions:

  • Q: How long can these cameras keep going?  A: They take about 8000 pictures a year, and the shutters are good for 150,000.  The images have to be taken off manually, but we’ve got funding and local support to do that.
  • Q: How about thermal imaging?  A: Coming up!  Along with LIDAR to measure distances.
  • Q: What do you use for image processing?  A: Intense.  The clips in the movie only include the pictures taken at local noon in order to keep the shadows from jerking around, but the scientific releases have everything. [The EIS site doesn’t actually have any glacier videos on it, so they may be holding them back until the scientists involved can get some papers out of it.]
  • Q: What are you all doing now?  A: James Balog is putting together educational materials based on this for raising climate-change awareness in schools.  [His knees were ruined in the course of the project, so no more glacier hiking for him].  The director, Jeff Orlowski, is busy promoting the movie.  I’m still running the image collection service for EIS, but am now doing some volcano work for the Army Corps of Engineers.    [This is a dude with serious thrill issues!]

The movie has made the short list of 26 films for the Best Documentary Oscar.   It’s beautifully shot, and has an important subject, but it also sure looks like it was a great adventure.

 

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