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Filming on thin ice: Recording the devastation of climate change isn't easy

Environmental photographer James Balog reveals how his cameras kept getting buried in the snow while shooting the haunting documentary 'Chasing Ice'.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is certainly true in Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski's haunting documentary about the acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog's mission to show people climate change in action.

The film combines human drama, art and science in a way that eluded An Inconvenient Truth, six years ago. That documentary – essentially a film of former US Vice-President Al Gore's travelling Powerpoint presentation about global warming – "did a tremendous global public service in bringing this story out into the general awareness," says Balog across a table in a London hotel.

However, he argues, Gore's political background "allowed the denier community to turn climate change into a political football. I think that's been unfortunate at best. In a lot of respects it's been unethical and immoral... This is a universal issue that affects us all, liberal and conservative, and it should be addressed as such."

Balog, a trained geomorphologist, admits that 25 years ago he was a sceptic, or at least indifferent to the issue, himself. Photographic projects about endangered species, tropical deforestation, and elephants being slaughtered were giving him enough to worry about. "So, when I'm hearing about climate change, back then," he says, "it's like, 'C'mon, leave me out of it. I don't want to hear about it.'"

The turning point came in the late Nineties, when he learned about how bubbles of ancient air trapped in Arctic ice were revealing a correlation between rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and human activity.

"Prior to that time I thought the science was all about computer models, and I knew that computer models were only as good as the data put in," he says. "When I realised that it was about physical evidence preserved in those layers, I thought, 'OK, this is real.'"

The story was so big, Balog couldn't avoid it any longer. He knew he had to find a way to address the issue artistically, and believed that, pictorially, the story would be in the ice in the Polar and Alpine regions.

He had already taken the photographer's first step of falling in love with his subject as a young climber and scientist. Even so, "I didn't know how to do ice in a way that would be compelling enough and unique enough and innovative enough to satisfy me," he says.

"I always have a mountaineer's mentality of wanting to go to a new summit. Do a first ascent. Do an innovation that nobody's come up with aesthetically. Then the question is, 'Oh my God, do I have the stamina to do it? Do I have the bank account? Do I want to do it?'" Through a process of experimentation during assignments for The New Yorker and National Geographic, in 2005 and 2006, he found that filtered through his lens and sensibility, photographs taken of glaciers at different times could be used to illustrate the "immediacy and reality of climate change" in a way that, hopefully, engaged people's heads and hearts.

Gripped by the idea of using time-lapse photography, he gathered together a team of scientists and technicians and created the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS): an ambitious project to place cameras in remote regions of Alaska, Iceland, Greenland and Montana, to film the changing glacier formations. First, they had to custom-build the time-lapse equipment, which, Balog was surprised to discover, wasn't available off the shelf.

"I should have spent a year doing the R&D on this," he admits. "But I needed to get my teeth into the main fieldwork as quickly as possible, because we didn't have money to keep feeding an R&D staff for a year… In hindsight that was the right choice, because it got us going and got the record moving like that," he says, snapping his fingers.

Putting his faith in untested equipment left out in ultra-freezing conditions and extreme weather "created horrendous stress," admits Balog. "The scientist-community guy may get a $500,000 grant and if his equipment works or doesn't work, he still gets a gold star for doing the science experiment. For me, there is no merit in anything for doing an experiment; I have to go home with pictures."

Normally, he'd be able to check the results instantly. This time, he had all his little "R2-D2's sitting out there on the edge of the glaciers, and they're blinking away every so often, and we say goodbye to them. They're out there for sometimes over a year, and you really have no idea [if they're working]." Sometimes cameras were buried under several feet of snow and were irrecoverable, while animals and falling rocks also did damage to equipment.

Early on, a small strip of two-sided adhesive tape holding a component in place produced errors that made Balog "freak out", because it appeared that the camera wasn't working and he'd already committed to sending a batch of the same units to Greenland at great expense.

"Literally the biggest challenge was finance to keep this thing alive," he says. "The second biggest challenge was electronics. And the biggest fear was with the aircraft." There is a hairy moment in the documentary when a helicopter engine fails, and he now reveals that prior to EIS, which is still continuing, he'd had "several near-death experiences" in other situations.

"They were incredibly scary experiences in aircraft, helicopters and small planes," he says, "and I am acutely aware of how dangerous those damn things are." If the helicopter had plunged into the freezing waters below, he would have been dead in 10 minutes.

Viewers of Chasing Ice are likely to think that the fear and risk – physical and financial – was worth it. Balog's time lapse images of glaciers shrinking are at once awe-inspiring, beautiful, chilling and elegiac. For the photographer himself, the impact of witnessing these seemingly unchanging geological structures dying has been profound. "When I worked with wildlife a lot in the Eighties and Nineties, I learnt the meaning of patience," he says. "And when I worked with trees, I learned the meaning of humility. And in this project, watching massive landforms disappear, I have learnt the meaning of mortality.

"I have been acutely conscious of it for a long, long time," he continues. "But I've learnt it at a depth and a visceral level that I hadn't before. And perhaps part of that is because I'm ageing. At the age of 60 you see how short the runway is in front of you and how long the runway is behind you, and that you don't have much time left."

Time could also be running out to halt, or at least slow down, the effects of climate change. Although Balog doesn't subscribe to the idea of a tipping point, he does think "we're at a point of crisis and serious urgency now".

I ask him if we have to be more humble in our relationship with nature.

"Unquestionably," he says unhesitatingly. "It's important to recognise that humans are not the measure of all things... The Earth is the measure of all things. We need to have a more humble view of our relationship to it, and we have to recognise that we have to have a proper reciprocal relationship with it. Or we will be the losers."

'Chasing Ice' is released 14 December