Caught In The Act

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

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caught in the act
Above: An EIS team member gives a sense of scale on the massive Svínafellsjökull Glacier in Iceland. Through his own unique lens and that of 26 other time-lapse Nikon D200 cameras, James Balog is using his innovative Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) to document the short-term, rapid changes in glaciers caused by global warming.This is the most wide-ranging study of glaciers ever conducted using ground-based, real-time photography. Chosen for their scientific value, representation of regional conditions, ease of access and photogenic quality, glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, the Rockies and the Alps, among other locations, are the focus of the project.

On glaciers across the northern hemisphere, a couple dozen solar-powered cameras are shooting once an hour for every daylight hour, capturing the ice as it melts in real time. This is a phenomenon often discussed but rarely seen, and perhaps never before in this way. When culled together, these hour-to-hour frames compose dramatic time-lapse image sequences showing that glaciers everywhere are disappearing fast.

In 2006, celebrated nature photojournalist James Balog launched the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Twenty-six cameras stationed at glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, the Rockies and the Alps, among other locations, will produce more than 300,000 images to be analyzed, stitched and edited together. The resulting time-lapse videos will show landscapes that are radically changing, sometimes over the course of just a few months. While the notion that glaciers are melting as a result of global warming is nothing new, seeing the speed at which it’s happening is remarkable.

“What is simply mind-boggling is the wholesale destruction of these creatures in such a short period of time,” says Balog of the melting glaciers. “It’s just staggering, and this project is an attempt to radically alter how the public perceives global warming.”

Back in 2006, Balog had just spent much of the previous two years working on assignments for The New Yorker and National Geographic that examined the effect of climate change on glaciers around the world. What he saw were surprising amounts of ice vanishing at an astounding speed, like 245 feet over seven months in Iceland. Balog, who has studied glaciers and alpine environments on and off for most of his life, had never thought change of that magnitude was possible in such a short time frame. Right then, he began devising EIS.

“I had always approached glaciers as scenic places. With The New Yorker assignment, I was looking at them within the context of climate change and I had to photographically think about glaciers in a way that I hadn’t before,” he explains. “But I’m still trying to evoke the personality, beauty and grandeur of these places in a way that pushes boundaries and breaks traditions. The photographs are still hung on all of the usual elements of beauty, light, color and composition.”

A scientist-turned-photographer, Balog has a degree in geomorphology, the study of landforms and the processes that shape them. His photographic ambition grew out of the climbing trips he took as a student on the East Coast, his camera skills developing as he went on to scale the Alps, the Himalayas and the Rockies. The combination of his analytical scientific background and artistic eye is why he’s known for breaking new ground with his images.


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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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caught in the act
Above: High tide brings an endless procession of ice fragments onto the beach in Jökulsárlón, Iceland. In some 436 frames shot between May and September of 2007, the Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska, is shown to have receded by about half a mile, equaling a volume loss of some 0.4 cubic miles of ice or 400 billion gallons of water. Between June and October of
2007, Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord Glacier, considered one of the Arctic’s most alarming examples of global warming, is captured showing ice flowing out at a rate of 125 feet per day or 8.5 miles per year.

Originally, the project timeline called for the cameras to operate until the summer of 2009. But Balog says he’s trying to raise enough money to keep the cameras going for a couple of years longer. The project, which has a budget of well over $1 million, is funded by prominent research and scientific organizations along with corporate partners.

If the first half of EIS is about going out and collecting evidence, the second is about using those findings to educate the public. Along with the video, a portfolio of large-format photographs is in the works, as well as a documentary about the team and the process behind making the images. Balog joined a panel of climate-change experts last year to brief members of the U.S. Congress on the implications of the melting glaciers, and there are plans for him to do that again this year.

In the spring, he’ll release a book called Extreme Ice Now—Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report. In addition to the time-lapse images, he continues to photograph the ice as he has for some 30 years, though his intent has changed.

Aside from The New Yorker and National Geographic, Balog’s work has been published in Audubon, Life, The New York Times Magazine, Outside and Vanity Fair. He has authored six wildlife and nature photography books, including Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife, which was broadly acknowledged as a major conceptual breakthrough in nature photography.

caught in the act
On its way to the North Atlantic Ocean, an iceberg the size of a compact car washes up on a black sandy beach under a star-filled sky.

Among many other accomplishments, Balog won the Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure in 2007 and was named the North American Nature Photography Association’s “Outstanding Photographer of the Year” in 2008. More than 100 museums and galleries across the globe have exhibited his work. He also was the first photographer ever commissioned to create a full plate of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. They were released in 1996 and featured America’s endangered wildlife. But for all of those accolades, he believes the work he’s doing now is his most important.

“Even when I was just starting out, I knew that my best work wouldn’t come from a publication,” says Balog. “It had to come from within and would be generated from some observation I was making about the world. Photography is such a powerful tool for transforming the way we see the world, and we haven’t used it to its maximum potential.”

To see more of James Balog’s photography, visit www.jamesbalog.com. Learn more about the Extreme Ice Survey at www.extremeicesurvey.org.