‘Chasing Ice’ Catches Up to Earth’s Changing Climate

By Lis Cohen

It’s probably hard to imagine all of Manhattan tumbling into the Hudson River and washing away in less than five minutes, but that’s the equivalent of what you’ll see in the film “Chasing Ice,” as a city’s worth of towering icebergs collapse violently into the ocean — and that’s just one of countless spectacular images that flash across the screen in this astonishing documentary by director and cinematographer Jeff Orlowski, which premiered at Sundance in January and is opening at SXSW this week.

The film is a documentary about a documentarian — a scientist-turned photographer named James Balog, whose obsession with images of ice has gotten him into the pages of The New Yorker and National Geographic. Despite his training as a geographer and geomorphologist, Balog was stunned to see how fast some of the glaciers that he shot were receding in the face of global warming. So he decided to create a long-term photography project he called the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which he hoped would merge art and science into a compelling story in pictures about what humans are doing to the climate.

A layer of cryoconite, dust which absorbs solar radiation, melting the snow, at the bottom of a Greenland Ice Sheet channel, July 2009. Credit: James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey. 

Originally, Balog planned to set up two time-lapse cameras to photograph glaciers, but within a few weeks his ambition had grown: he bought 23 more cameras, then assembled a team of 30 scientific experts, engineers, and photographers to help him carry out his vision.  Balog also asked Orlowski to film the project. “I wanted to work with James in some capacity,” said Orlowski, and the collaboration turned into “Chasing Ice.”

The movie is nothing short of spectacular. As you watch, you can see how Balog and his team set up all of those cameras on three continents, in places including Alaska, the Rockies, Greenland, Iceland, and Mt. Everest.  The team worked in below-freezing temperatures and high winds, rigged cameras to the sides of cliffs, and programmed them to take automatic photos every half-hour, powered by solar panels.  In total, they captured more than a million glacier portraits over five years.  “Without a doubt,” Orloski said, “this has been the most challenging project in my life.”

The same is clearly true for Balog and the rest of the team, but the photos they brought back are incredibly valuable. It’s one thing to see an image of a single retreating glacier, but Balog’s cameras recorded dramatic changes in glaciers around the world.  The Columbia glacier in Alaska is just one striking example. Since 1984, the Columbia has deflated by a thickness equivalent to height of the Empire State Building. Over the life of the project, it retreated so quickly that to keep the edge of the glacier in the frame, the team had to keep returning to adjust the camera’s angle. “We never expected to see the glaciers change as much as we’ve seen,” Orlowski said. “That was the most shocking part for us.”

On one trip to Alaska, Orlowski recalled, “there are entire areas where we spent days and days climbing on ice, using our ice tools, and going up and down parts of the glacier. When we revisited them, all that ice was gone. The landscape looks so different that you almost don’t recognize it . . . that giant playground, that world of ice we were pretty much living on for a week, is completely gone.”

For the director, the experience was eye-opening.  “We think of glaciers as being part of geologic time,” he said, “something that happens over centuries and thousands of years.” What Balog has shown so vividly, he said, is that in a warming world, this conception is completely out of date.

On the other side of North America, in Greenland, Orlowski and project engineer Adam LeWinter stood watch in frigid conditions waiting for the end of a massive tidewater glacier to break off into the sea — a calving event, a glaciologist would call it. Finally, on the 17th day, it happened. With nine cameras rolling, they recorded a chunk of ice some 400 feet deep and three miles wide calve off of the Ilulissat Glacier — and in a little more than an hour, the glacier continued disintegrating until it had retreated a total of about 1 mile. The block of ice that retreated and broke off into the ocean could have fit about 3,000 U.S. Capital buildings in it. Orlowski and his team condensed this event into a 3-minute clip that was, to put it simply, awesome.  For Orlowski, watching this live “was a life-changing event. Adam [the engineer] and I were the only two there and we felt we were watching history unfolding in front of us.”

James Balog hangs off a cliff near Columbia Glacier, Alaska to install a time-lapse camera. Credit: Tad Pfeffer/Extreme Ice Survey. 

“Chasing Ice” has lots of this natural drama, but there’s plenty of human drama as well. A couple of years into the project, for example, Balog had surgery on his knee. He opted for a procedure that had a quicker recovery time, so he could get back into the field faster, but it wasn’t as effective in the long run. His doctor ordered him to quit ice climbing — an order he promptly ignored. One night Balog even walked out onto the ice on crutches to capture one of Orlowski’s favorite photos of the entire project.  There are also lots of action scenes, with members of the team rappelling into gaping crevasses, making the movie a cross between a frozen “Planet Earth” and an action film.  In fact, “Chasing Ice” won the best adventure film award at the Boulder International Film Festival.

What is perhaps most surprising about the film is that Balog used to be a climate skeptic. He explains how he once thought that climate change theory was based solely on computer models, where in fact it’s based on scientific measurements of both modern and ancient climates. Once Balog learned that tree rings, sea floor sediments, and ice core data were showing that the climate is warming on average, he changed his mind. Orlowski’s film about Balog could, in turn, change the mind of other climate skeptics. One thing that struck me, however, was that although the evidence of climate change is overwhelming in “Chasing Ice,” there’s very little about slowing or stopping the planet from warming. 

It is hard to decide whether the jaw-dropping imagery or the climate-change messages in this film were more compelling. But it’s  no surprise that the film received the “Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary” during the 2012 Sundance film festival. In at least one screening at the Sundance Film Festival, the audience leapt to its feet cheering.

To do this film justice, go see it on the big screen.  The next opportunity to see the film is at the South by Southwest (SXSW) arts and music festival in Austin, TX the second week of March. The TV rights to “Chasing Ice” have been acquired by the National Geographic Channel and its website says a theatrical partner will follow shortly. To find out more see  National Geographic Channel Takes 'Chasing Ice' and visit the movie’s website. For “Chasing Ice” movie show times at SXSW click here.

Lis Cohen is an intern at Climate Central and a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University.