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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Melt Down

James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey continue to break ground in documenting the world’s vanishing glaciers

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Meltwater on the surface of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. This is one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world. Since the 1980s, it has lost about half of its total thickness and volume.
Glaciers probably offer the most visually striking evidence of climate change, an issue that, at least politically, has become one of the more polarizing matters to explore as part of public discourse. With a front-row seat to some of the world's most remote glaciers, Balog and his team have witnessed some radical changes, including the biggest calving event ever captured on film. In 2008, a block of ice three miles wide and three-fifths of a mile deep broke off the Ilulissat in a little more than an hour and resulted in the glacier retreating by a mile.

Capturing these kinds of dramatic events and creating the time-lapse videos is just half of the EIS mission. The other half is getting the information out there to educate the public on what's happening in these faraway places. To that end, Balog and the project have become highly visible the last few years, with the photographer representing NASA and the U.S. State Department at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, speaking at the annual, invitation-only TED conference in Oxford, England, that same year, and winning numerous awards from institutions such as the International League of Conservation Photographers and the North America Nature Photography Association, as well as the Leica Medal of Excellence.

This view of the Stein Glacier in Switzerland backs up warnings from scientists that the Swiss Alps will no longer be covered by ice at the end of this century if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate.
"The bigger context is a human and scientific realization," Balog says, "an ever-growing collective realization that we're in the midst of a tremendous systemic transformation of the earth. Humans are clearly creating change in basic parts of the earth. We're altering everything: the air, water—fresh water and salt water— the basic architecture of plant and animal life. We're the dominant agents of change. We [EIS] are the first big photographic project to document this kind of change. Everyone who walks into the room walks out stunned by the pictures we show them. Nobody comes away unmoved."

Along with the movie, the book Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers comes out this fall. A showcase of the sculptural beauty, light, color and shape of these magnificent frozen bodies, the book speaks to Balog's aesthetic appreciation for and fascination with ice. His development as a photographer grew out of climbing trips he took as a student on the East Coast, with his camera skills developing as he went on expeditions scaling the Alps, Himalayas and Rockies. With graduate degrees in geography and geomorphology, which is the study of landforms and the processes that shape them, his scientific background certainly informs how his artistic eye sees these soaring glaciers. He has said before that "science gives art a terrific context of understanding," and that's certainly the case with this project.

Balog, who had been a skeptic about climate change until just over a decade ago, is hopeful that his project, and more like it, can make a difference in persuading those who doubt the impact of human activity on the environment. Since they offer real-world visual evidence, glaciers show the urgent nature of climate change, and their sheer natural beauty often inspires an emotional connection that other phenomena attributed to the changing climate don't. EIS takes it a step further by connecting the visual dots between what's happening far away and the rising sea levels and other climate-related matters taking shape closer to home.

Balog is also calling on others who take pictures for a living to do more.

"Photographers have a uniquely powerful instrument in their hands called a camera," he says. "If they use that with another uniquely powerful instrument called their brain, we have an extraordinary opportunity to change the way humanity is seen. Too many photographers still aren't embracing that opportunity. They're still celebrating prettiness, and that's not enough now. We already know that nature is pretty, especially when it's left alone."

James Balog has been a leader in photographing, understanding and interpreting the natural environment for three decades. He's the author of seven books, and his work has been published extensively. For more on the Extreme Ice Survey, go to www.extremeicesurvey.org. To see more of Balog's photography, visit www.jamesbalog.com.


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