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Caputuring the Insane Beauty of Climate Change

Film Review: Chasing Ice (Documentary)

Chasing Ice poster

What does climate change look like?

For decades now, scientists and environmentalists have been struggling to offer compelling, real world, visual examples of how global warming is altering our world. But what is considered rapid change in geological terms takes many years to occur and is, therefore, hard to capture visually (At least until extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, and frankenstorms a la Sandy began showing up with increasing regularity in the past few years).

National Geographic photographer James Balog grappled with this problem too.

Somewhat of a climate change skeptic himself back in the early 2000s, Balog spent several years researching climate change, “trying to find what you could photograph about it.” He couldn’t come up with much. Then, in the spring of 2005, he was sent on an assignment to Iceland to capture images of melting glaciers. The trip not only turned him into a global warming believer, it made him realize the only thing that would work in telling a visual story of Earth’s changing climate, the only story that “sounded right,” was ice.

“I realized that the public doesn’t want to hear about more statistical studies, more computer models, more projections. What they need is a believable, understandable piece of visual evidence. Something that grabs them in the gut,” he says near the beginning of Chasing Ice, a documentary by Jeff Orlowski that chronicles Balog’s multiyear project to photograph ice melt in the Arctic.

Soon after that first trip to Iceland, Balog decided to document the melt by visiting glaciers across the world every six months and photographing them from the same marked spot. But he found that the glaciers were no longer moving at a, well, glacial pace. In fact, the rate of change was so fast that he then embarked on the boldest expedition of his life — an “Extreme Ice Survey” that would use time-lapse cameras to capture the incredible speed at which our ice sheets were melting and raising sea levels.

Balog and his team of photographers’ initial, painstaking attempts to place rigged up cameras in sub-zero conditions are a failure. Their efforts are thwarted time and again by strong winds that batter the cameras, wild animals that chew up the cables, exploding batteries, and mircochips that fail to work. Their second attempt, with higher-end equipment built to withstand extreme conditions, including sub-zero temperatures and 240km/h winds, is successful. Twenty time-lapse cameras in remote locations around Alaska, Montana, Nepal, Iceland, and Greenland begin snapping away at hourly intervals.

The result of these thousands of images taken over a couple of years is a series of time-lapse videos that capture the dismaying speed with which ancient mountains of ice are vanishing into the sea.

Orlowski builds the film around Balog as the obsessed photographer on a mission to show people the truth about climate change. He shows Balog battling against the odds, struggling to go on with his banged up knee (that requires another round of surgery) and coming close to losing it at times.

To some extent this works since Balog is a pretty compelling character. It’s hard not to be moved by his awe of the glaciers which he describes as a “limitless universe of forms” that’s “insanely, ridiculously beautiful,” or curse with him when yet another camera refuses to function, or choke a bit when he’s tears up while trying to describe how he feels when he watches “a glacier that’s been here for 30,000 years or 100,000 years is literally dying” in front of his eyes.

But ultimately, it is the series of insanely, ridiculously beautiful images and videos that Balog produced — shown in a series of montages toward the end of the film — that really make Chasing Ice a must-see film. The the visuals held me spellbound, filled me with dread and left me sad for days afterwards.

Halfway through the film, one of Balog’s assistants says that being out there on the ice made climate change “a little more real” to him. That’s exactly what Chasing Ice manages to do — use images from places few humans have ever visited to make an irrefutable truth that much more real, for both believers and non-believers.

 Watch the trailer below and click here for showtimes across the country.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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