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Chasing Ice (documentary film review)

Chasing Ice
Directed and produced by Jeff Orlowski
Written by Mark Monroe
Edited by Davis Coombe
Photography direction by Jeff Orlowski
Time-lapse direction and still photography by James Balog
Music by J. Ralph
Original song: “Before my Time,” music and lyrics by J. Ralph, performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell
Produced by Paula DuPre' Pesmen and Jerry Aronson
Submarine Deluxe Presents
An Exposure Production
In Association with Diamond Docs
Release Date: Dec. 2012 (UK)
Running time: 74 minutes

One would think that the overwhelming consensus on the reality of climate change—as well as the laughable methods used by those who pretend, feebly, to be credible voices disputing this consensus—would be enough to persuade anyone that climate change is real. Yet somehow, in America at least, this is not enough. Americans appear to be alone in having been duped by the fossil fuel lobby, a fact regarded with disbelief by pretty much everyone else in the modern world. This circumstance poses a vexing dilemma for climate scientists in their efforts to raise awareness. If compelling scientific evidence isn't sufficient to change the minds of people in the most powerful and second highest CO2-emitting nation in the world, wonder these experts, then what is?

Nature photographer James Balog may have found one answer. Since 2007, he's been capturing the melting of Arctic ice through time-lapse photography, as part of a project he founded called the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Its aim is to establish visual evidence of the havoc that greenhouse gas emissions are wreaking on Earth's biosphere. To date, EIS has amassed over one million images, including both time-lapse shots and a collection of single-frame photos celebrating what Balog terms “the beauty—the art and architecture—of ice.” Balog believes that captivating imagery has the potential to succeed where mere abstractions have failed in mobilizing public opinion. To him, the sudden disappearance of a city-sized glacier is far more effective as a motivator for change than is a long technical discourse.

We witness just such an event in Chasing Ice, a documentary film account of Balog’s Arctic quest directed and produced by Jeff Orlowski. In May 2008, the EIS team had a video camera rolling on the gigantic Ilulissat Glacier in western Greenland when it underwent the largest instance of calving, or the shedding of large chunks of ice from its face, ever recorded. The filmmakers behind Chasing Ice later used some of this footage to great effect in their documentary. The calving lasted for 75 minutes and spilled 1.8 cubic miles of ice into the ocean in the form of jagged, skyscraper-sized icebergs. To give a sense of the scale of this colossal event, Balog tells us that the calved ice was equivalent in volume to 3,000 U.S. Capitol Buildings.1 Ice calving in the Arctic is at once an awesome spectacle and a frightening omen of future climate mayhem.

Not all changes to the ice are so readily apparent, however; some are imperceptible to the naked eye. The retreat of inland glaciers is a case in point. Glaciers that aren’t visibly crumbling are nonetheless undergoing dramatic transformations of their own, but ones that can be observed only through snapshots. Chasing Ice tells the stories of several such glaciers using before and after shots taken six months apart. Through these photos, which are presented as a montage, we see one Arctic landscape after another go from a snow-covered vista to utterly bare ground.

In addition to retreating, glaciers are also thinning vertically in a process that Balog likens to a balloon being deflated. Balog points to one glacier whose height has dropped by about 1,500 feet (or roughly that of the Empire State Building) since 1984. He also shows us, again with a montage, glaciers that have lost dozens of feet from their height in just months.

One of the surprises for climate scientists in recent years has to do with moulins, or the extensive meltwater channels that comprise a glacier’s “plumbing system.” Moulins form in melt zones near the edges of ice sheets. They start at the surface and can burrow hundreds of feet down to the underlying rock, where the meltwater acts as a lubricant helping the glacier to gradually slide away. Some moulins stop partway down to form hidden caves that further undermine overall structural integrity. The complex workings of each glacier’s moulin system are just beginning to be grasped, but scientists believe it’s quite likely that they cause melting to proceed far more rapidly than originally predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).2 Chasing Ice has a fascinating shot of a snowscape pockmarked with moulins, a scene that Balog says aptly resembles the surface of the moon.

The documentary briefly cuts away from its main story to provide an overview of climate change. Topics covered include the link between climate disruption and species extinction, as well as the increasingly intense forest fires, weather-related disasters and rising sea levels that we're seeing accompany dramatic climate shifts. While this survey is mostly a review for those who’ve been following climate change, it is a fine primer for those who haven’t.

Balog is captivated by the impossible, at times otherworldly, beauty of the landscapes now rapidly melting away. He speaks often of what he calls their art and architecture, and observes with awed reverence that they may never exist again in the lifetime of our civilization except in photographic form. His photos reveal them to us from breathtaking perspectives. One of my favorite shots is of rounded ice berms extending into a crystalline blue bay, their wispy edges much like the brushstrokes of an impressionist painting. Another stunning image shows a boulder of ice glowing intensely in moonlight, the light appearing to come from within.

Chasing Ice is at least as much about the personalities and human drama behind EIS as it is about the images returned by the survey itself, as was the director’s intent. Orlowski has said that he conceived of the film as primarily an adventure story about Balog and the challenges that he and his team had to overcome.4 He movingly captures their first major setback, which occurred when they returned six months into the project to find that many of their cameras had been destroyed by extreme weather, while others had malfunctioned and taken no photos. The group rallied and in due course developed a new system involving anchors and guy wires to hold cameras sturdily in place, as well as customized controllers to ensure that they shot images at the right times. Some camera sites were so remote that they had to be reached by skis, fishing boats, dogsleds, helicopters or even on horseback. Orlowski faithfully records this saga in Chasing Ice.

This film's one Academy Award nomination was for a part of it that received short shrift in the final cut: Best Original Song. The song, titled “Before My Time,” is a heartfelt elegy written by composer/songwriter J. Ralph and performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell. The song certainly deserved a prominent spot in the film, but alas, it ended up being relegated to the ending credits.

It was as an outdoor adventurer and graduate student in geomorphology four decades ago that Balog first took up photography. Fueled by what he now calls “youthful brashness,” he made climbing expeditions in the Alps, the Himalayas and Alaska, and along the way taught himself to photograph. He went on to freelance for the Smithsonian and National Geographic, and to see a number of his projects become gorgeous large-format coffee table books. His work in the Arctic is his best-known to date, epitomizing perhaps better than any other project his lifelong aim of bringing together art and science—and culminating, of course, in Chasing Ice. This film won the Excellence in Cinematography award at Sundance 2012; and following its release Balog won Duke University's LEAF award for Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts and Dickinson College's Rose-Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism.4 At present Balog is working on expanding EIS into Antarctica.

He wasn’t always a climate change believer, though. For a long time he refused to accept that humans could fundamentally change Earth’s physics and chemistry. “It just didn’t seem probable,” he recalls. But then he learned about the Antarctic ice core samples with their detailed record of atmospheric temperature and CO2 levels going back almost 800,000 years, and suddenly what had once seemed improbable was now irrefutably true. Balog‘s goal in founding EIS was to use vivid imagery to jolt viewers into awareness as quickly as possible. “We’ll be arguing about this for centuries,” he laments. “We’re still arguing about a minor thing called evolution, a minor thing about whether or not a man actually walked on the moon. We don’t have time.”

1 James Balog, "Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss," filmed Jul 2009, TEDGlobal video, 19:22, http://www.ted.com/talks/james_balog_time_lapse_proof_of_extreme_ice_loss (accessed Apr. 10, 2014).
2 Stefan Rahmstorf, “A new view on sea level rise: Has the IPCC underestimated the risk of sea level rise?,” Nature Reports: Climate Change1004 (Apr. 6, 2010): 44–45, http://www.nature.com/climate/2010/1004/full/climate.2010.29.html (accessed Apr. 09, 2014).
3 “Q&A: Jeff Orlowski,” Lifestyler Magazine, Dec. 30, 2012: 26, http://issuu.com/lifestyleron/docs/december_2012/30 (accessed Apr. 09, 2014).
4 Tim Lucas, “Photographer James Balog to Receive Duke LEAF Award on April 12,” Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Feb. 25, 2014, http://nicholas.duke.edu/leaf/balog/news-release (accessed Apr. 09, 2014); Christine Dugan, “The Visual Voice of the Planet: Photographer James Balog to Receive Rose-Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism,” Dickinson College, Mar. 3, 2014, http://www.dickinson.edu/news/article/943/the_visual_voice_of_the_planet (accessed Apr. 09, 2014).

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