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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Caught In The Act

An unprecedented experiment in time-lapse photography reveals how quickly glaciers are melting around the world

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This Article Features Photo Zoom

caught in the act
An image taken from aboard a helicopter flight to visit camera sites at the Ilulissat Icefjord Glacier, Greenland.
“Nothing in any of that prior experience put me in a position for thinking that you could see these monumental changes happening so quickly,” he explains, “at least not in an environment that you expect to be static. With volcanoes or earthquakes, change is dramatic and quick. That’s not the case with glaciers.”

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.

caught in the act
A block of 500- to 700-year-old ice calved from a glacier in Jökulsárlón, Iceland.
Since the weather presents such a challenge, images are downloaded as often as once a month or as rarely as once a year, depending on the difficulty and expense of reaching a given field site. Even when a location is accessible, the cameras sometimes aren’t because the ice, which is constantly retreating and breaking up, moves them around. This makes it difficult to check their condition, swap out memory cards and perform other logistical tasks. But however difficult the journey is to reach these places, the visual evidence collected so far has astonished even those who are very familiar with this issue.

“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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