Tuesday, September 4, 2012
James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey continue to break ground in documenting the world’s vanishing glaciers
When OP first caught up with widely acclaimed photographer James Balog a few years ago, the future of his ambitious project using time-lapse photography to capture the world's receding glaciers wasn't certain. The undertaking, called the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), has 27 cameras pointed at 18 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains in the United States. Every half hour, the shutter clicks, and the images (8,000 frames per camera per year) are edited into videos that show how dramatically the ice is changing in these regions.
Now, as it heads into its sixth year, the project is thriving in ways that Balog simply couldn't have imagined back in 2005 when he was experimenting with solar panels, batteries, waterproof cases and other materials from his local hardware store that would outfit the Nikon D200 DSLRs taking the images. The years of hard work are documented in the film Chasing Ice, which will be released in November. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, who joined the EIS team in 2007, the film won an award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was bought for television broadcast by the National Geographic Channel.
"Where we are now is so far outside of what I could have imagined," says Balog. "There was no expectation that anything like where we are today was going to happen. I never thought the project would go on so long or that the visual evidence would be as startling and alarming as it has proven to be. I never thought we would continue to have this huge obligation to document what has become a gigantic historical event. It has all been kind of a shock."
When word came this summer that a massive iceberg two times the size of Manhattan had broken off Greenland's Petermann Glacier, Balog found the development surprising just as some scientists did, but ice-core records show that this kind of extreme melt isn't unprecedented. More alarming to him were later satellite observations of Greenland that showed how much melting was occurring at its summit, some 10,000 feet above sea level.
"That's a long way up," says Balog. "Previously, the average was 3,000 feet above sea level. It would be interesting to know whether those levels were pushing up to 8,000 or 9,000 feet in the past five or six years. So the short story is that this might very well be consistent or easily categorized as part of the ongoing warming trend over the past 20 years. If we were to see three of these events in the next decade, that might really be eye-opening. Greenland has been warming at an extraordinary rate. There are all kinds of changes in the ice. This could also just be part of some natural variation trend."
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