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James Balog poses on the Columbia Glacier in Alaska with two EIS time-lapse cameras in 2009. (Extreme Ice Survey)

Propelled By Climate Change, Activist Is Drawn To Ice

Nov 8, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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James Balog hangs off a cliff on the Columbia Glacier in Alaska to install a time-lapse camera.

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Superstorm Sandy has put the topic of climate change front and center once again.

Just after Sandy staggered his city, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote "Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week's devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."

Photographer James Balog has spent the last several years of his career trying to show the world warming in its coldest regions: not before-and-after shots, but glacier ice melting in real time. For that purpose, he created the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS).

Balog's photographs have appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, Outside and Vanity Fair. Now he's the subject of a new film directed by Jeff Orlowsky called Chasing Ice.

Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon talks with Balog about the new documentary and his quest to document the planet's vanishing glaciers.


Interview Highlights

On the Extreme Ice Survey

"We have 34 cameras at 16 glaciers, scattered around various places. Those places include the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Nepalese Himalaya by Mount Everest and Montana, in Glacier National Park in the United States. These cameras have to withstand gale-force winds, have to function in temperatures of -30, -40 degrees Fahrenheit. And it's been going on since 2007. Though we thought the project would initially be just a few years, it now appears that it's going to be indefinite."

On what he sees in ice

"There's just an extraordinary and infinite architecture and character and personality in these places. Water is a remarkable substance, obviously. It metamorphoses from a solid state to a liquid state to a vapor state. And in that passage, I discovered that this was basically an infinite series of variations of images and colors and light and form that could be seen in these landscapes. And I basically fell in love with these places."

On experiencing a glacier collapse

"The only thing I can compare it to is being at the end of a runway at a major metropolitan airport and having 747s going off over head, you know? You can ... feel the rumble going right through your ribcage. And it's an enormous block of ice vertically ... the Empire State Building, that's approximately 1,000 feet high. ... The ice is nearly 3,000 feet high, measuring many miles across, rolling over and collapsing in the matter of an hour or so."

On the natural and unnatural variation of glaciers

"This is a natural process. But what we know from extensive, extensive analysis, by researchers from all around the world, is that we are way, way out beyond normal, natural variation now. And that's connected with changes in the atmosphere. And these things are, of course, raising sea level. And they will continue raising sea level steadily if we keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere."

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