Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Caught In The Act
An unprecedented experiment in time-lapse photography reveals how quickly glaciers are melting around the world
This blend of art and science is an enormous undertaking with journalists, scientists, engineers and artists all working together to create what could become a highly valuable scientific tool for future research and environmental activism. Through a complex solar-powered system of Balog’s own design, the cameras, which are Nikon D200s, take nearly 4,000 images a year. On overcast days and during long winter nights, they operate off of batteries. Each camera is placed inside a protective Pelican hard case and is supported by a Bogen tripod head. The setup is then mounted to a configuration of aluminum and steel anchors secured by stainless-steel aircraft-cable guy wires. Each contraption weighs more than 70 pounds.
With the weather in all of these environments being so extreme (170 mph winds, minus-40-degree temperatures, heavy snowfall), a satellite system that was designed and built exclusively for EIS monitors the cameras’ operating systems daily. In March of 2007, the first cameras were deployed in Iceland. To get the cameras into position, the team had to overcome hurricane-force winds, blizzards and pouring rain. A couple of months later, the first batch of images was downloaded, and the change they showed was stunning, Balog recalls. Cameras were later set up in Greenland, Alaska, the continental U.S. and the Alps in May, June and September of that year.
Last spring, teams were sent back out to check on how the cameras had handled the winter. With conditions this harsh, damage was expected. But the systems had held up so well, it came as a surprise when one positioned on the Sólheimajökull Glacier in Iceland was destroyed by a rockslide. The images collected from that site are so vital that the camera was quickly replaced.
“We’ve seen pictures of glaciers for a long time. People look at an old photo of a glacier in 1880 and one of it now, and go, ‘Oh, it changed,’” Balog says. “Fifty-, 75- or 100-year comparisons don’t make enough of an impact. Your brain doesn’t hold that memory. But with time-lapse imagery, people can see these dramatic things happening in weeks or months. It has a different effect.”
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