Climbers at rim of Survey Canyon

On Thin Ice

The speed of society's response to melting ice in the polar regions has been glacial. Indeed, James Balog's photography shows that the response is making glaciers look alarmingly fast.

When it comes to illustrating the effects of climate change on the planet it's hard to beat the famous photograph of an exhausted polar bear desperately clutching on to a rapidly melting block of ice. This image has been adopted as a symbol of climate change and has, in some ways, made the polar bear the poster child of the environmental movement.

However, with his series of time-lapse photographs detailing the staggering degree to which the world's glaciers are retreating, James Balog may well have found another contender. The collection of shots amassed by Balog and his team over years of painstaking fieldwork depicts the seasonal cycles of the vast ice forms situated across the globe in astonishing detail. Viewed alone, the stills show serene, seemingly unending landscapes covered with sparkling, crystaline ice. However, when they're edited, flickbook-style, into short videos an altogether different story emerges. Skyscraper-sized blocks of ice are shown shearing off the glaciers' faces, gigantic waves are created as falling ice churns up in the foaming water, and each year these immense masses of ice are slowly getting smaller and smaller.

Balog's relationship with ice began when he was sent on an assignment to photograph Icelandic glaciers by the New Yorker magazine in 2005. He quickly found himself mesmerised by their variation and beauty. He saw in them, he says, the qualities that portrait photographers such as Irving Penn found in the human face.

"When I would be packing to go on a new expedition, I'd be packing my cameras thinking oh god what can I do that's new and different about this? Inwardly I would be groaning," he explains. " And invariably we would get out there and there would be some incredible new thing that we had never thought of before, never seen before, never imagined before. So that kind of animated the enthusiasm, that artistic excitement, that would lead to good pictures. The ice in different places has unique character and even the ice within these places has unique character. It's based on the circumstances of the climate, on the physical movement of the ice, the physical movement of the erosional forces around the ice, and all that governs what these unique areas look like. Here I am now, seven years into shooting this stuff and there's always something new."

One of the new things that caught Balog's eye throughout the course of these trips was the rapidity with which the glaciers he was returning to were retreating. He was so shocked by this that he became increasingly convinced that it was an event of huge importance and as such something that the world at large should be witnessing. Spurred on by this conviction, and a realisation that it was most likely going to be up to him to start making a record of the glaciers before there was nothing left to photograph, he set up the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS).

"The EIS came out of the 2006 National Geographic assignment," he recalls. "They had me going to different places in the world seeing how the glaciers were changing. I was only part-way through that assignment when I realised there was a lot changing. And I thought I should come back to a lot of these same locations next year or the year after. So I started to mark where some of my positions were.

"When we edited the pictures, I thought, 'oh man, there's a gigantic thing just sitting right here right in front of us, I have to do more with this'. It was during that editing period that I had the idea of at least going back and doing the annual repeat shots of the glaciers and as I was thinking about annual repeats I was thinking about leaving time-lapse cameras behind. Initially I was thinking about only a couple and then after two weeks I was thinking about a lot; that became the concept for the Extreme Ice Survey."

Chasing Ice

Since its inception in 2007 the EIS has installed 27 cameras across 18 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalayas, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. These cameras are set up to shoot every half hour during daylight all year round, yielding approximately 8,000 frames per camera per year. The images are then edited into time-lapse videos that illustrate the huge volumes of ice that melt yearly.

This work is documented in the film 'Chasing Ice'. Directed By Jeff Orlowski, a protégé of Balog and EIS team member. The film shows the team struggling against blustering winds, climbing vertical faces of ice and enduring temperatures far below zero in relentless pursuit of the images. At one point in the film Balog refers to the glaciers as canaries in the coalmine, asserting that they are key indicators for the changing climate of the planet as a whole.

In light of recent events it's difficult to argue with him. The weather this summer has broken record after record: It was the UK's wettest ever; one of the warmest ever in the US; record-high temperatures were experienced in central and eastern Europe; and eastern Africa and the US were subjected to the worst droughts in decades. More recently Hurrricane Sandy ripped through the Caribbean and the eastern United States in late October causing powercuts, flooding and structural damage across Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas, New York, Delaware, Maryland and Florida.

Glaciers are the world's largest reservoir of fresh water, holding around three-quarters of the Earth's entire supply. The melting of the glaciers, along with the effect of thermal expansion and several other forces, is leading to a rise in sea levels worldwide. Estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state that sea levels will have risen 15 to 95cm on average by 2100 when compared to 1990 measurements. While this will make little difference to many parts of the world, in others it will be felt more keenly.

Many of the Pacific islands such as Palau and Kiribati are predicted to be subjected to substantial coastal erosion while some models predict much of the Maldives will become uninhabitable thanks to a sea-level rise of more than one metre. Poorer, low-lying countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh are also expected to suffer from substantial flooding should adequate defences not be put in place. Even more developed parts of the world such as California and New York City are expected to have to upgrade flood defences over the coming decades.

But the effects are not thought to be limited to coastal areas. According to research by the IPCC, glacial melt is predicted to pick up speed, leading to increased flow in some river systems for several decades followed by a reduction as the glaciers disappear. For example, the flow in rivers in central Asia is predicted to increase threefold by 2050 but then die back down to 66 per cent of the current level by 2100. Similarly, the IPCC predicts up to 95 per cent of Alpine glaciers could disappear over the same timeframe. With these changes comes the need for more efficient water-management systems as meltwater from the glaciers could cause rivers and lakes to burst their banks leading to flooding that could potentially damage crops and even residential dwellings.

Scientists at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) warn that the melting of glaciers that feed rivers such as the Ganges, Mekong and the Yangtze could lead to a significant drop in water flow over the coming decades, up to half in some cases. This could have grave consequences for the millions who rely on the rivers for irrigation and drinking water.

The edge of a crisis

As part of his role as the founder of the EIS Balog gives talks around the world showing his pictures and detailing the team's work. At a talk for a TED conference held three years ago he made a passionate plea to those gathered to act now, stating that we are sitting on the edge of a crisis. Little, he says, has changed.

"We continue to be right in a crisis. I don't think there's any doubt about that. And the crisis is because the evidence of these changes is so clear, so unmistakable," he explains. "And yet our collective social, political, institutional capacity to change is so limited. The world is changing faster than human society is changing. We are slowly waking up to that fact and I still believe that we have the economic, technological and policy capacity to deal with this. We know what the right answers are, we know what to do and the question is whether or not we have the perception and the willpower that comes from perception to do what needs to be done."

Despite working closely with a number of prominent experts, including scientists from the US Geological Survey, The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, and the Byrd Polar Research Institute at Ohio State, Balog recognises that his most effective role is as an intermediary between art and science and as a photojournalist in the purest possible sense. In this capacity he has an artist's confidence in the power of his work and is largely content to leave the telling of the story to the images themselves. The story they tell is a stark one: time is running out.

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