On Chasing Ice (2012)


“Chasing Ice” is a stunning documentary by Jeff Orlowski that describes the efforts of the team at the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), led by four-time knee-operated eminent-photographer James Balog, to capture visually, the effects of changing global climate on the glaciers in the Northern hemisphere. It is stunning not only for its visual accomplishments, but also in the scope of the logistics for this task, the dedication of the crew, and not the least, the amount of detailed information that the team has gathered since 2007. The film documents the efforts of James and his team to set up automated cameras in the most remote locations, often dangling from a harness in sub-zero conditions, in order to get the most comprehensive view of their subject – gigantic glaciers that could dwarf the entire city of New York many times over.

Their modus operandi is simple in statement, but extremely rigorous in practice. Team members must physically visit all camera locations every 3 months to check up on the devices and download the information collected till then. The camera sites are not exactly what one may call “accessible,” and in James’ case, such an activity is just what his doctor ordered him NOT to indulge in. To compound their difficulties, the landscape keeps changing at a rate that also requires recalibration of the camera hardware and orientation - it is particularly frustrating when the crew finds some of the cameras non-functional due to rock slides, faulty circuitry, snow accumulation and a variety of other causes that are beyond their control. All data for the past cycle (3-4 months) is lost. As James himself remarks during one successful capture - their data holds images of dynamic landscapes that were never witnessed by a human, and will never ever be. The memory card is the only “memory” of this landscape for posterity.

The epic scope of the task undertaken by EIS can only be appreciated in the context of their findings. It should be no surprise that their data reflects what scientific community has been shouting for so many years – global warming is real, and it responsible for changing seascapes on this planet. The effects of these changes are man-made, definitely. At a poignant moment in the film, James dips his bare hands into a snow cavity and scoops up a handful of black mulch from the glacier. The dark matter, he says, absorbs light and heat more readily than the surrounding ice, thereby melting the glacier from within, and accelerating the calving process that separates chunks of ice (in one instance, as large as lower Manhattan!) from the glacier. This dark matter is not indigenous to the Artic – it is a mixture of soils from Mid-east deserts, soot and other industrial products from Europe and Asia compounded with algae. Fruits of the industrial progress of the past century!

I could go on and on about the data that EIS found, but mere words cannot convey the sheer enormity of the scale of change in glacial landscape in the Northern hemisphere. Why does James Balog do it – with considerable peril to his personal self? His answer – When my daughters ask me tomorrow what you did when this was happening, I will say that I did my best!

The real question for the rest of us is – did we?

(For more details about the Extreme Ice Survey project and ways to help future explorations, visit www.chasingice.com)
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