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    Melting Glaciers Preserved in Years-Long Timelapses: An Interview with the Makers of Climate Documentary 'Chasing Ice'

    Written by

    Daniel Stuckey


    January 23rd, 2013 – Chasing Ice is now in wide theatrical release. To find local showtimes, check here.

    While a handful of researchers, scientists and naturalists have all watched enormous glaciers calve off into the oceans, no one seems to have the same intimacy with ice like James Balog. The acclaimed nature photographer became the focus of a young filmmaker, Jeff Orlowski, who asked a few years back if he could tag along on his “Emergency Ice Survey.” EIS is Balog’s project to put automated cameras—with elaborate all-weather housing and fortification—next to glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana, and watch the suckers melt away.

    The slowly-disappearing ice is given a depressing immediacy as Balog’s two to three year time-lapses expedite the process for you. While they’re some of the most incredible time-lapses I’ve ever seen, the team wasn’t ready to stop with Planet Earth-style stop-moition bloom animations. Deciding at one point to camp out for weeks perched above the gargantuan Ilulissat glacier in Greenland, they hoped to possibly capture a massive calving event (when a chunk breaks off). On their 17th day, one of the biggest calving events ever witnessed on the planet made it into Chasing Ice. It took 75 minutes for a piece of glacier the size of lower Manhattan to cease movement once it broke off of Ilulissat.

    Having screened all over the festival circuit this year, Chasing Ice has yielded some momentum and praise, not dissimilar to the buzz around Louie Psihoyos’ seminal anti-whaling documentary, The Cove. Psihoyos, who is in the midst of putting together an elaborate new documentary about mass extinction, also appears in Chasing Ice, commenting on the bleak consequences of glacial melting.

    I went with a friend to see the film recently during its early cinematic push. After an end credits sequence featuring one of those wow-they’re-connected-or-have-money moments (check this chill track by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell), Balog and Orlowski walked up front of the puny Cinema Village theatre for an extended Q&A. I started recording it on my phone a couple minutes deep, and captured the Q&A thusly:

    First off, congratulations on the fantastic film. In a perfect world, ya know, bureacracy, politics, skeptics, all the bs that goes along with it, if everyone woke up tomorrow and said, “You know what, we’re going to fix it,” what could we do to fix it? And how quickly would that be impact be felt?
    Balog: I have an impact that you can start exercising about the time you walk out that door, actually. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the answer to thie question because everyone wants to know, “What can I do? I’m overwhelmed, what can I do?”

    What you have to do is the same thing you do with any problem. Let’s say the lights in your apartment have gone out, and you say, “What am I going to do about that?” You don’t just sit there thinking about all the consequences of it, you say, “Ok, what’s the first thing? The food is going to go bad in the refrigerator because I don’t have power.” Then you have to figure out, “How do I get light? How do I get this?” In other words, you slice it into a series of smaller problems that you can handle.

    This is the same thing, and the thing that we’d like to tell everyobody in this room, is the realization that using your voice, is your slice of the problem. You’re not in the business of redesigning wind turbines, or reengineering the American economy so that these entrepreneurs are working on a level playing field and not getting killed by the fossil fuel companies. That’s not what we can do. What we can do, is use our voices, and tell the tory that’s exemplified in this story, because it makes it real and it’s tangible and people get this. And so if you can help spread the word, the word that’s in this film, you right away have an impact that can start moving the needle; the societal needle.

    Have you shown this to President Obama?
    Orlowski: We did a screening before Congress this summer, and we did give out copies of the film to every member of the Senate and House, which we were very happy to do. A number of copies have gotten to President Obama—he has been a little bit busy the past couple of weeks (laughter)—but we’ve been told by his science advisors and members of the team that they’re prioritizing and making sure he sees it soon.

    Balog: There is reason to believe that the First Lady is particularly passionate about this subject, as an issue of the health and safety and future welfare of her children, so we’re hoping for great things.

    I’d be curious to har about your experience shooting this. Like, as this was turning into a documentary feature, how much did you set up things and stage things?
    Orlowski: Nothing is really set up or staged, it really is fortunate—James being aware of how the filmmaking process works—that if we introduce something where we needed a certain shot, it was very easy for us to get. The scientists are all very very friendly that we’ve all been working with. You want to talk about that James? James works with them more.

    Balog: Yes, the science community is really interesting because they have a huge amount of knowledge. You canot believe what the specialists in these various fields know. You go to these science meetings and you sit there in rooms like this and you listen to presentations. They know a thousand times more information about amazing world-changing events than ever gets out into the public awareness. So the challenge is to be able to kind of filter it. To take all of that information, run it through some kind of funnel, and way down at the bottom of that funnel be able to turn it into something that we can make new stories and good pictures out of.

    That’s the real problem. And part of that problem is to make the story of what they’re doing simple. And you spend a lot of time to work with them to squeeze down a lot of complexity into something that’s a really clear, straightforward narrative thread that’s still accurate to the intentions that they have. That was the real creative challenge to get all of that right, and this film has been vetted by many many scientists over and over again to tweak the nuances and get everything just right.

    Orlowski: We had someone that was the former head of the EPA come up to us after the screening at a festival and said that we’d accomplished in a 75-minute film what he’d spent 25 years in his career trying to do. So that was pretty humbling.

    “We can afford to pay for the consequences and the mitigation here, but a lot of other places can’t.”

    So you talked a lot about the extreme weather that results from this, you talked a little bit about the impact of the rising water level and major population displacements along the coast. I mean, do you see Manhattan being underwater?
    Orlowski: It’s not a matter of needing three feet of seawater rise to flood an entire area. When you have a small incremental change in the oceans, with more volume of water there, with warmer temperatures that can hold more moisture in the air—all of that is feeding into stronger storm cycles. That’s what we’re talking about.

    There are places in Southeast Asia where they’ve been growing crops for generations and generations and one bad storm takes saltwater up into their cropland, and they can’t live there anymore. They can’t grow their food anymore. There are entire countries that have announced that they have to move their populations of 100,000 people or more because they know that the islands will be uninhabitable.

    There’s an island that India and Bangladesh were debating over for hundreds of years that now doesn’t exist anymore. So the consequences are already being seen very significantly. It’s not a matter of how much sea-level rise is going to completely put a part of the coast underwater. It’s the consequences of the storms of the sea-level rises; that’s the biggest concern.

    A clip showing how Balog’s camera setup works.

    Balog: Right now it’s rising at an 1/8th of an inch a year, which isn’t much. You know, in eight years we have an inch. Well, you multiply that out and it starts adding up. The glaciologists are quite sure that the current rates of glacial melt will be exceeded going into the future. So the belief and the assumption is that we are looking at a minimum of two to three feet of sea-level rise by the time those girls are my age [points to two toddlers in the audience]—that’s an exaggeration—but I’d say about a foot and a half by the time that they’re my age. By the end of the century, something on the order of two and a half to three feet.

    As Jeff says, it provides more ammo for the storms as they come in. It makes a big difference in places like Chesapeake Bay and places down in the Mississippi Delta, coastal Florida, and not to mention, big river deltas in Africa, like the Niger river. In Asia, where those big rivers come out of Himalaya and come down through Southeast Asia. And in China, there are lots and lots of people living on land that has a slope that is basically flat, and if you get a foot of sea-level rise, it goes a long way in.

    Orlowski: We can afford to pay for the consequences and the mitigation here, but a lot of other places can’t.

    If you get a minute to see Senator James Inhofe walking down the hallway of the Senate office building, what would you say to him if you had one minute to try to convince a climate denier what’s happening?
    Balog: My reaction is to be respectful to him, although the teacher in me says [makes angsty face]. But my reaction is to be respectful and say, sir, you’re entitled to your opinion, but not the facts. And we’re here to bring you some facts. These are fresh facts you might not have considered before. You may’ve been influenced—by some chance—by the oil companies that are from your own homestate of Oklahoma, but please consider the facts that we have here to show you.

    If the ice is disappearing is there going to be less ice in the wintertime? Like, when it snows is there going to be less ice? [This question came from a young girl. Her mother followed up:] She just wants to ski, she wants to know if it will impact her ability to go skiing.
    Balog: It does impact skiing actually. I’ve been an avid skier since I was about her age. And a number of the ski areas in the United States are quite concerned about climate change because of the alterations in the snowfall patterns, and that’s got a lot to do with why so many of them have been trying to rebrand themselves as summer resorts. There are music festivals, mountain biking, and all of the things you can do in the summer to generate money and not just be focused on ski areas, but it definitely has an effect on skiing.

    “We have 34 cameras on 16 glaciers right now and I’d like to get another 10 cameras or so in South America, and we just got an opportunity to work in Antarctica.”

    [again, the girl] So if you wanna make a snowman, there’s not going to be a lot of snow to do it?
    Balog: There will be less snow, more often than there is now, definitely. I want to give a little projection on the climate. Between 1940 and 1970, these latitudes in here, that we live in, were in a relatively cool, wet period, in kind of a sweet spot for climate. It wasn’t too dramatic with the super hot summers, it wasn’t too terribly dramatic with the big mega snowstorms. There were hurricanes, there were snowstorms, but there was a relatively benign climate.

    And then starting around 1970, there’s been a dramatic warming in Western Europe and all across North America, such that the insurance companies that measure this stuff—as you saw in the film, that graph—there has been a fivefold increase in extreme events, and that includes extreme snow events. So when the snow comes, sometimes you are going to see epic snow. There’s a huge snowstorm right now in the Rockies. The Wasatch front outside Salt Lake City just got multiple feet of snow, but that happens. It happens sometimes in November, that’s just the way it is. But it’s much more spiky, it’s much more volatile. Utah last year hardly had any snow at all, the ski areas were out of snow, they never had any significant snow last season.

    The crew poses with one of their rigged cameras

    I just wanted to ask where else you were going to do this in the future? Places like Antarctica I think were on the credits, with mention of the Himalayas as well.
    Balog: We have five cameras by Mt. Everest, and as I’ve said already, I’d really like to get some cameras down in South America next year and keep that story going. Presently, we have 34 cameras on 16 glaciers right now and I’d like to get another 10 cameras or so in South America, and we just got an opportunity to work in Antarctica.

    Finally, I want to look at some other aspects of the systemic changes that impact other parts of the glaciers, not just ice. Permafrost and methane are a really big deal, and there are some things I can do with that—funding permitting—I’d like to do, but it’s all donor driven. Private donors and foundations. So we need time to generate the support we need.

    Is there a place that we can come and support you work?
    Balog: Yes. Come and see me. (laughter)

    As I left Cinema Village, Jeff and James stood out front on the sidewalk of 12th Street, validated by a line of people patiently waiting for the following, sold-out screening. Pontificating to a group with hurricane Sandy and nor’easter Athena fresh on their minds, Balog brandished a copy of his photo book while sharing names of bookstores, websites, and talked about his upcoming schedule. He’s off to England next week, and then back to make some stops with the venerable climate change kingpin, Bill McKibben, who’s climate change roadshow is coming through New York this weekend.

    Orlowski, left, and Balog after the screening

    The team says a general theatrical release of Chasing Ice will only happen if a large enough public interest calls for one. But not to worry, if you’re in New York, LA, San Francisco, Boston or a handful of other cities, it’s playing in limited releases. Check chasingice.com for showtimes. In the case you miss it on the big screen, it’ll be on cable TV in the spring, in perfect time to ring in next year’s thawing season.

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    Images courtesy Chasing Ice