February 2008, An EIS team member provides scale in a massive landscape of crevasses on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier in Iceland. (Photo: James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey)
A photographer was one of this year’s Heinz environmental award winners. James Balog’s project -- the Extreme Ice Survey -- documents the rapid melting of glacial ice through time-lapse photgraphs from cameras in some of the world’s most remote areas. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with James Balog about the Extreme Ice Survey.
GELLERMAN: Winners of the prestigious Heinz environmental award have just been announced. This year the Heinz Foundation is honoring a wide variety of environmental innovators including a distinguished academic for his work in sustainable transportation, a pioneer in green chemistry, and a scientist who studies the suspected endocrine disrupting chemical BPA.
Awards and checks for a hundred thousand dollars will also be going to several winners who focus on climate change, among them James Balog. He’s director of Earthvision Trust and a one-time climate change skeptic. James Balog joins us from Boulder Colorado. Welcome to LOE…and congratulations.
BALOG: Well, thank you so much. It’s a wonderful week, and a wonderful honor and a privilege. I feel very blessed.
GELLERMAN: A climate change skeptic winning one of the premier environmental awards. Now, that’s an achievement.
BALOG: Well, I’m not a skeptic, and I haven’t been in a long time. Twenty years ago, I thought this whole science was based on computer modeling, and I’m a bit of a technological luddite, and I thought that if it was all based on computer modeling, there could be something wrong with it. But then I took the time to learn about the evidence that was in the ice cores, and then I got out into the field and looked at what was happening to the glaciers, and I realized that this was not about models and projections and statistics. This was incredible concrete and real and immediate and happening really quickly.
GELLERMAN: In a sense, seeing is believing.
BALOG: Yeah, absolutely. As a photographer, my whole career and as a once-upon-a-time experiential educator for Outward Bound School, and as a mountaineer for forty years, I am quite keyed in to the feeling of experience. You know, seeing things, feeling things, touching things. Letting the vibrate in your chest, well when you are standing at the side of these glaciers and you’re watching huge masses of ice go away, you really get it.
GELLERMAN: And you’ve captured these images….and, something you call the ‘extreme ice survey.’ Tell me about that.
BALOG: Yes, the extreme ice survey is, so far, a four-year project. We have time-lapse cameras, permanently stationed at glaciers in many parts of the world. They photograph every fifteen minutes, every thirty minutes, every hour, whatever the case may be. And, they keep a living record of the glaciers as they are changing. And, we periodically go out to these remote locations, download the cameras and turn these pictures into video that animate the changing life of these masses of ice.
GELLERMAN: You freeze frame this moment in time, this historic moment in time.
BALOG: What I find so captivating, and what has had me so obsessed by this the past five years, is the realization that this is a monumental and truly historic moment of earth history right now, as the impact of carbon-burning is having these gigantic effects on really enormous masses of the landscape. And, for me as a photographer, to have the opportunity, however sad it may be, to capture these things on film is really extraordinary. You know, you’re seeing history passing in front of the lens, in front of your eyes. And, it’s an awesome and inspiring thing.
GELLERMAN: I went to your website and you have some extraordinary pictures and videos, you’ve made these kind-of time lapse collages. Lets listen to one:
[SOUNDS OF TIME LAPSE COLLAGES FROM BALOG’S WEBSITE: This is it, ground zero. More ice is released into the global ocean, from this glacier, than from any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. If sea level rises, this is where it all begins. This is it, ground zero.]
GELLERMAN: Where is ‘ground zero’? Where is this place that you were photographing?
BALOG: Yeah, what we’re seeing in that clip is the Ilulissat Glacier on the west coast of central Greenland. And, it’s been retreating quite dramatically the past nine years. This summer in Greenland has been the warmest since records started being kept in 1873.
GELLERMAN: One of the images that you have, in your video, shows part of the glacier falling off into the sea, and you super-impose upon it three hundred capital buildings.
BALOG: Three thousand. Yeah, that block of ice that breaks off in that picture is equivalent to 3,000 US Capitol Buildings in volume. So, it was an enormous piece of ice, and when I have opportunities to show that animation at the US Capitol to Congressmen or Senators or to government agency officials, of course, every body gets a big kick out of that comparison.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, but do they get it? Do they get climate change?
BALOG: I think the vast majority of the legislators do get the climate change story. They understand the factual evidence that’s at hand. But, they have a problem with accepting that evidence because of various other factors, many of them financial and commercial that impinge on their best judgment. And, I’m afraid that the future is going to judge our moment in history rather poorly, when they realize that we’ve been asleep at the wheel, and we haven’t been dealing with the facts that we’ve had at hand.
GELLERMAN: You go way out there, you’re in helicopters, and canoes, you’re out in the middle of nowhere! A lot of adventures. Any misadventures?
BALOG: Ironically, when it’s just about me as a mountaineer, engaging with the landscape- I feel relatively secure with that. The place where I feel anxious is with machinery. We have some of these sites that we only get to by helicopter, and we have had one helicopter, at least, with some serious mechanical problems and it almost wound up going down into the ocean.
And the prospect of trying to survive a swim in 30 degree water with icebergs is not very appealing, and actually, you know you’re going to die in five or ten minutes, so, fortunately, we got through that and everything was fine.
GELLERMAN: You have two children, as I understand, right?
BALOG: I have two girls, one is almost nine, and the other one twenty-two.
GELLERMAN: So, you put your life at great risk here, and yet you’ve got two kids, a wife, and you know… why?
BALOG: That’s a hard question to answer and, you know, I lay awake at night anxious about that many times. But I feel a devotion, and a dedication and an obligation to this work. You know, at a certain point, photography is not a job. It’s a vocation. It’s a calling. This bearing of witness to this historic moment is what calls me. I have to do it.
GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Balog, I want to thank you very, very much. And, congratulations again!
BALOG: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for the time! I appreciate it.
GELLERMAN: James Balog is director of the Extreme Ice Survey and Founder of Earthvision Trust. You can see some of James Balog’s extraordinary photographs on our website, L-O-E dot org. And thanks to KGNU in Boulder, Colorado for the use of their studio.
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