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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there