When James Balog first photographed glaciers for National Geographic in June 2007, they filled his camera frames. Incomprehensibly large and imposing blocks of frozen history, most were decorated in a brilliant sheen resulting from a constant stream of melting ice on the glaciers’ surfaces. The glossy finish made for great photography, but it also hinted at a problem for the planet — the melting of the polar ice caps.
Today, from those same vantage points, the massive structures would only take up a small part of Mr. Balog’s camera frame, appearing as ice cubes rather than a majestic ice mountains. This disturbed Mr. Balog enough to begin a daring project: to record with certainty the reality of climate change.
Called the Extreme Ice Survey, Mr. Balog’s project involved stationing 30 cameras in Alaska, Iceland and Greenland to continuously photograph over the course of a year the massive glaciers located there. It involved working with technology in some of the harshest conditions on earth, and at first it failed. Mr. Balog cried when the original round of shooting was wasted due to camera malfunctions. Money and time were lost.
As he continued with the project, some obstacles were solved, but others emerged. Even Mr. Balog’s body rebelled when his knees flared up in pain. Doctors told him he could no longer handle hiking, especially the type required for this shoot on snowy mountains in frigid conditions.
On Wednesday, July 18, Mr. Balog’s journey will be shown as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. The movie is called Chasing Ice, a documentary filmed by Jeff Orlowski. The movie clearly shows, among other things, that Mr. Balog did not take his doctor’s advice. In one scene he is filmed scaling a mountainside while the narrator reports, “He’s doing exactly what the doctor said not to.”
Eventually, Mr. Balog had to undergo a third surgery on his knees and let some of his assistants brave the snowstorms to check on the cameras when he couldn’t. And what the cameras captured was hard proof that countless miles of ice were melting away at a rapid rate.
Mr. Orlowski had accompanied Mr. Balog on his expeditions from the very beginning, but at first he did not plan to create anything himself. “I originally went to Iceland, Greenland and Alaska with James because I wanted to work with him and take the shots of what he was doing with the Extreme Ice Survey,” said Mr. Orlowski. “I didn’t plan to make a feature film.”
And even when he decided to go ahead with the film project, the young director felt like he was in over his head. “I didn’t have the experience. I was lucky that I was able to build an incredible team, though. Our initial goal was just to make a good film that people would find interesting.”
But Chasing Ice turned out to be much more than a merely interesting film.
“Now we see that it has a potentially major impact on eliciting reactions to climate change,” said Mr. Orlowski. “We’ve been blown away and humbled by people’s responses. Many, many people are telling us that the movie has completely changed their opinion about climate change.”
The film received the Excellence in Cinematography Award for a U.S. Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The shots of the frozen, crystal landscape are breathtaking on the big screen. The movie will be screened in theatres in the fall, opening in New York and Los Angeles and then spreading to small cities and towns.
“We’re wearing our filmmaker hats and our activist hats,” said Mr. Orlowski, when asked about his role in the process. “I hope when this movie goes to theatres it continues to enlighten people about climate change.”
Vineyarders get a jump on the rest of the country at next Wednesday’s screening to be held at the Chilmark Community Center. The movie will also be shown on Thursday, July 19, at the Harbor View Hotel. Both shows begin at 8 p.m. and will feature Woods Hole Research Center senior scientist Richard A. Houghton who will conduct question and answer sessions after the shows.
For more information, visit tmvff.org.