Describing something as moving at a “glacial pace” used to be an insult. Not anymore: The documentary film, “Chasing Ice,” provides clear evidence that these days a glacial pace is one that has violently speeded up.
Taking us literally into the bowels of glaciers in Greenland, Alaska, and Iceland, the movie delivers a compelling argument for an accelerated response to our accumulating, man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Not many people were in the theater where I saw the movie in Denver recently, but those who were remained in their seats throughout the blizzard of credits. How often does that happen? The film focuses on the work of James Balog, who got a master’s degree in science in the 1970s but instead took up the more visceral work of outdoor photography in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
He has achieved great success with his photographs of wildlife. Some of his images of endangered species were used for a series of U.S. postal stamps, and later he undertook a project to document the world’s tallest trees. That’s not something you can do in a studio, nor is it something he did simply by standing at a safe distance. The images he created required both climbing skills, acquired in mountains but adapted to trees, as well as mastery of photographic technology.
I first heard about Balog’s new project in 2009, when he spoke at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. A year or so later, I saw him at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, this time with images from Greenland. The photos were disturbing.
Balog says his primary ambition was to make climate change visual and visceral. To do this, he mounted dozes of time-lapse cameras near glaciers to record them as they withered. The sheer logistics of bolting boxes to rocks on the side of mountains overlooking the rivers of ice looks daunting. As he did this in Alaska and Montana, as well as in Iceland and Greenland, you see and hear the frustration of his early miscalculations. But the evidence piles up in the film, and it validates Balog’s mission.
This work also became an adventure of high order. Literally. The giant ice cap of Greenland reaches elevations of 10,000 feet, but the melting water has created canyons with unknown serpentine depths. Into one of these slippery, sinister but captivating chasms, Balog and his team descended via climbing ropes. Watching these scenes, perched on the edge of my seat, I thought back to the dozens of mountain-climbing films I’ve seen over the years. This work by Balog, who is now around 60 and struggles to walk on badly damaged knees, strikes me as comparable to the very best of the mountaineering genre.
The notion that these are extraordinary times is reinforced by a synopsis of a nine-hour sequence capturing a giant glacier calving off an ice field the size of Manhattan. As the ice, taller than the Empire State Building, finally slides into the water, its fall feels cataclysmic, and Balog, as well as the various speakers introduced in the film, assure us that it felt that way to them, too.
Along with the rapidly vanishing ice of the Arctic Ocean, a correlation (and probable causation) seems inescapable between the diminishing ice field and rising greenhouse gases. For those of us with children or grandchildren, seeing documentation like this can leave you feeling helpless and discouraged about the future. That was the response of my companion at the film.
It made me recall the first time I saw Balog’s slides in Aspen. In the question and answer period after his show, Balog was challenged by Dan Nocera, a chemist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is working to create chemical surfaces that will more effectively translate solar heat into electrical energy, and he believes that our only hope to get past our dependency on the fossil fuels is to figure out how to more effectively capture solar energy.
Nocera challenged Balog’s gloomy evidence from the glaciers that are rapidly disappearing. The men agreed about the desperate challenge of climate change — perhaps the defining issue of our times – but Nocera was more optimistic. He believed that we still had a chance to cut our destructive pollution in time to avert the worst that might happen.
Balog’s photos and all other rational evidence argue for immediate action, similar to our response to Pearl Harbor in 1941. Instead, we drag our feet. It’s easy to be pessimistic. Myself, I tend toward optimism — but that, like religion, requires a leap of faith.