Melt Down

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

Pieces of the Breidamerkurjökull Glacier wash up on the beach at Jökulsárlón, Iceland. Calved into Jökulsárlón, the icebergs float across the lagoon, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces as they go, then flow into the waves of the North Atlantic Ocean. At high tide, they wash up on the beach. Balog calls the ice chunks “ice diamonds.”

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.

The Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland made news this summer when an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke away from it.

Challenges were everywhere from the very beginning, from creating camera systems that would be sturdy enough to withstand and function in such remote and harsh environments, to transporting them to each location, with Balog and his team having to fight through some pretty tough conditions long enough to put the cameras in place, to maintaining and replacing them when necessary, to finding the funding needed to keep such a huge project going. When OP left off with Balog, he wasn’t certain how long EIS would last or whether it would be able to expand.

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.”

Near the Ilulissat Isfjord in Greenland, a massive iceberg has broken off with lily pads of sea ice now surrounding the ice sheet.

That’s the reaction often experienced by those who watch the EIS videos. More than just showing the glaciers in retreat, they show how quickly these melts are happening and how much ice is flowing into the ocean. Take the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland, for example. The glacier is four miles wide, and its flow speed has doubled in the past decade to 125 feet per day. It discharges more ice into the ocean than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. Looking at the time-lapse videos, viewers can see changes that happen over months and years in minutes.

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.”

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 To see more of Balog’s photography, visit