Photographing Climate Change

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 02.01.09
  • NOVA

In this audio slide show, James Balog shares the stories behind startling images from his Extreme Ice Survey, a three-year photographic study which documented the unprecedented melting of the world's glaciers and ice sheets. Balog considers himself a modern hunter-gatherer, collecting arresting visual evidence of climate change, which many scientists agree is proof of human-caused global warming.

Launch Interactive

Acclaimed photographer James Balog describes his Extreme Ice Survey, a photographic record of arctic and alpine melting.


Photographing Earth's Melting Ice

Posted: February 1, 2009


JAMES BALOG: My name's James Balog. I've been a nature photographer for 30 years. I work primarily for National Geographic. I was originally trained as a geologist early in my life, and I've been an avid mountaineer for my entire life. And the photography and the geology and the mountaineering have all come together in this enormous multi-year project I'm working on called The Extreme Ice Survey.

The Extreme Ice Survey, which we refer to as EIS, is a collaborative project involving leading glaciologists, atmospheric scientists and image makers. What we're trying to do is make a visual record, collecting evidence of the changes that are happening to glaciers and ice sheets around the world, and bring that evidence home and show the immediacy and reality of climate change.


This a glacier called the Solheimjí¶kull, which is still sort of a bad English rendition of the word, but it means sun-house glacier in Icelandic. In this picture, I looked at the terminus of a glacier and I thought, "Oh my god. This thing is dying. It's collapsing." You could see it just fading into the river. I made this first triptych in March of 2005 for The New Yorker. And then in October of 2006 I went back and made the second picture from exactly the same place. And you can see the glacier is basically almost vanished. It's in the far background and it's receding up-valley. And that's continued to go on. That glacier is not even in this picture at all anymore. And we don't know how far it will go up the valley before it stops.

This is on the southeastern coast of Iceland where an immense ice field called Vatnají¶kull dumps all these huge icebergs into the ocean, they float out to sea, and they get pounded in the waves. And on the high tides, these chunks of ice get washed up on the beach, and block, by block, by block, this melting ice is the physical living process of global sea level rise.

This is an image of what we've come to call an ice diamond. As these blocks of glacier that are getting shattered get washed up on the beach, they assume these fantastic, gorgeous shapes. It's just like when you walk through some fantastic museum full of the hope diamond and all these wonderful sapphires, and emeralds, and rubies, and whatever. That's what nature is producing on this beach except that they exist only for this one rising of the tide, and when the tide comes back in again, it's going to carry it away, and then, poof, they're gone, and that glacier is gone with it. So it's a very special, very spiritual, very transitory kind of place where you really feel time and mortality passing.


What is known very clearly, from very, very, very precise satellite measurements that are done is that the Greenland ice sheet is losing a huge amount of ice every single year. In this picture we're out at the end of the fjord of what's called The Ilulissat Glacier. And this one glacier puts more ice into the global ocean than all the other glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere put together. And this is a huge ice island that's broken off from that glacier and is in the process of floating out to sea. The local folklore has it that the iceberg that sank the Titanic came from this glacier, and just by the statistical odds of just how much ice this glacier produces, that quite possibly could be true.

In this image I'm down in a boat looking at these 'bergs and I was just struck by the delicacy of that touch. And internally in the office we refer to this picture as "The Kissing Icebergs" because there is just this illusion that they're gently nuzzling each other here. But I just love the shapes, you know, the lights and the shapes were so magical. And for whatever reason it seems like one of the central pictures of the series.

This feature is called a moulin, M-O-U-L-I-N. And The man who's standing down there is a geologist who was with me when we went out there with a helicopter to photograph these features. These melt water rivers take the melting snow from the surface of the Greenland ice sheet and they collect it into these rivers which flow along until they find some weakness in a crevasse in the ice, and they scour a hole eventually down to the bottom of the ice sheet 3,000 feet below on the bedrock. And there's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them carrying the melt of Greenland out to sea.

There's thousands of these lakes painted across the surface of the ice. As melt is running off in the spring and summer it pools up in these lakes for a while, and then it'll run off into a channel perhaps or sometimes we've been discovering there will be these crevasses that will open up in the floor of these lakes. And all of a sudden, you'll have a huge lake that'll just, poof, just vanish, just drain right down through the ice in a matter of an hour or two or three or three or four.

When these melt lakes and the Moulins drain down to the bottom of the ice sheet, they're carrying heat down into the bottom of the ice. You know, water is warmer than ice, right? And what is apparently happening is that parts of the base of the sheet that had been frozen are getting thawed out by having this liquid water carrying heat moving past them. So, this is part of a cycle of warming up the ice and speeding up its flow out into the ocean.


The Mer de Glace literally translates as sea of ice. It's a huge glacier in the alps, and the loss of ice has been really dramatic. Just in the past 20 years there's been this vertical deflation of basically 150 feet. That's a lot of ice lost! And in this particular shot you see where a sidewalk is constructed going down the granite wall of the Mer de Glace trough, the drainage that it comes down. Well, at the top of that where the red line is, is where that glacier was 20 years ago. And they had built a sidewalk so that tourists could walk out on the surface of the glacier. And as it drained down they had to keep building that sidewalk ever more downward so that people could still reach the glacier. So in its own strange way, these little sidewalk layers are like tree rings marking the old position of the glacier as it was shrinking. And in the yellow circle you can see person standing on one of those landings to give you a ittle bit of the sense of scale.

That's at the Columbia Glacier in Alaska. What I've done in this picture is something that no intelligent, self-respecting photographer would ever do and that is to put a cheesy illustration over his shot. But anyway, it's useful for trying to tell what's happening. At the top of the Empire State building here you see the high water mark of the glacier in 1984. And ever since then, it's been deflating. And the amount of ice that's lost is equivalent to the height of the Empire State Building. And if you've ever stood on 34th Street in New York and looked up at the top of that building, that is a long way up. So you can start to get a little sense for how much ice has disappeared.

Chacaltaya is in the Bolivian Andes outside La Paz. And this site was the site of the world's highest ski area originally. That summit is 17,200 feet, and the entire scene here was covered with a glacier in 1940. Now that glacier is all but vanished. In August of 2008, the glacier and had shrunken down to one last little scrap that's about six or seven feet high. And we expect that last little dwindling scrap of the glacier to be gone either next summer or the summer before, and poof, there will be no more Chacaltaya Glacier.


This material is obviously a snapshot. It's a short-term snapshot of something that has been going on for a long time. Ever since there have been glaciers there have been retreating glaciers. But the big, big, big, big difference right now is that these glaciers are retreating at much faster rates than glaciers have in the known geologic past and it's very well-documented that the retreat rates have sped up significantly since the mid-1970s almost everywhere.

There's a tremendous amount of confusion in this society about what's going on with climate change. People have heard so many stories that a lot of people are sort of giving up and saying, "It's all just natural variation." I'm here to tell you it is not natural variation. And that is very, very, very well-documented in the scientific record.

And through these pictures, and through the EIS, and through what you're doing with books, and films, and TV shows, we can get the story out there in a way that we can't if we simply publish professional papers and speak to the specialists in the field. So I think science and art both have something to say to the public about what's going on. And that's what motivates me; I think with these tools we have a mechanism for telling the truth and bringing the evidence to the public.


This is the Columbia Glacier in Alaska and it's retreated over a 11 miles since the mid-1980s. And here you can see where it was in June, then in May, then in October of 2007. And then we begin our time-lapse and you can see the glacier flowing in from the right at the same time the terminus is retreating pulling back up the valley. And even in the winter time the glacier is for the most part retreating. Then it eventually catches up to itself, starts to advance for the summer. And, you know, you really have to look at this 10 or 15 times and watch all the amazing little details. These crevasses form on the right side, and all of a sudden a huge ice island will break off. But then by the time we got to June the glacier had retreated so far it was almost back out of the frame again.

So we pivoted the camera and then turned it back on and watched it rolling down the valley again. This glacier is—I would bet the cost of my daughter's college education on the fact that this glacier will retreat out of this frame within a year and a half maximum. And over the next 10 to 15 years it will retreat another 5 or 6 miles up to the right before it finally gets grounded back on land and stops retreating. And so eventually, at the end of this, we pull back so you can see the cycle of what's happened just in the past few years at the Columbia Glacier. The total retreat in the few years is one and quarter miles, and the retreat in that period has been equivalent to 165 school buses lined up nose to tail. It's a long distance.



(EIS camera, Balog at work, Balog sitting on grey ice, Balog standing on grey ice)
Courtesy Jeff Orlowski
(all others)
© James Balog

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