Chasing Ice

In 100 years or so, when Google’s autonomous robo-historians write the book on their fleshy predecessors, they will no doubt try to explain why we blew it on climate change. Why, despite decades of ever-more-definitive evidence, did the human species not take even the most basic of measures to avoid a catastrophe?

They will find plenty of blame to pass around. Our political systems, they will observe, just weren’t up to the diplomatic challenges of mustering a multinational effort — we couldn’t agree on whose fault it was, who should pay to fix it, even whether we should bother trying. Our brains proved ill-equipped to process the gravity of a long-range threat until it was too late. And our news media, the storytellers to whom this message was entrusted, were too easily distracted by more lurid dramas.

We didn’t see it coming, even though, on every other level, we knew it was.

This, as nature photographer James Balog tells us in the documentary Chasing Ice, is essentially a failure of imagination. Unless you have a glacier in your backyard, the earliest effects of a warming planet have so far appeared to most of us only intermittently, a signal lost in the noise of the daily weather.

Balog’s response to this perceptual disconnect is called the Extreme Ice Survey: He sets up dozens of stationary cameras aimed at glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and elsewhere. The cameras shoot photos every 30 minutes during daylight hours, some 8,000 pictures a year. It’s the same photo-a-day technique that so many amateur documentarians have used to create those viral videos of receding hairlines, but on a geological scale.

The resulting time-lapse movie can condense months and years into a few mesmerizing moments. Now we can watch the canary in the coal mine as it expires.

“Melt” doesn’t really capture the awesome violence of what we’re seeing. Balog’s cameras look on as the flank of an Icelandic glacier “deflates,” crumpling into black-puddled nothingness like a giant decomposing animal. A crawling river of ice in Alaska turns into a raging torrent, speeding up before our eyes. Greenland’s Ilulissat ice sheet rolls over the landscape, an endless white blanket sloughing off into the ocean. It is, as the photographer says in the film, a “magical, miraculous, horrible, and scary thing.”

Chasing Ice, which was directed by Jeff Orlowski, saves most of these sequences for the film’s climactic third-act reveal, when we finally see the results of three years of labor by Balog and his team of young assistants. The first two acts are dedicated to the team’s admirable and occasionally moderately nail-biting efforts, as they scramble over various harsh landscapes installing their cameras, battling bad weather and technical foul-ups.

Balog, a veteran environmental photographer well-known for his work in National Geographic, is now pushing 60 and has a bum knee that’s starting to get in the way of the physical demands of his work. But, perhaps because his photos reveal something enormous and terrifying that’s happening at a planetary scale, it’s hard to get too worked up about the small-scale drama of his knee surgery. He isn’t the sort of obsessive weirdo whose outsize personality can carry a two-hour documentary. Essentially, he’s just a guy doing his job, a photojournalist drawn to the ice by the charge of his profession: to bear witness.

It’s possible that the whole EIS project doesn’t really have much to add to the science on Arctic melting (doesn’t satellite imagery reveal essentially the same phenomenon?). The wider arena of climate change policy is glimpsed only in passing; there’s a montage of assorted Fox News mockery of global warming, footage of hurricanes and floods, grave promises of extreme weather to come. And Chasing Ice has little to say on solutions, so stow your geoengineering schemes elsewhere.

The film’s achievement is fundamentally aesthetic. A sequence at the end showing an enormous “calving event” might be the most astonishing thing you’ll see all year. A lower-Manhattan-sized glacier spontaneously self-destructs into a boiling sea, rumbling and roaring like an angry god as it dies. It’s a triumph of disaster-movie spectacle, all the more haunting for being real.

It’s hard not to marvel at such visuals and wonder if some of that melted ice isn’t soaking someone’s basement in Staten Island now, or whether it’s coming into your basement next year. Balog’s work makes such powerful agit-prop because, unlike the ill portents delivered by other climate Cassandras, it delivers ground truth, not doomy speculation pegged to a deadline that still at least sounds far off.

As chilling as it is to read, say, the newest report from the World Bank on how unlivable we will likely render the planet by the end of the century, there’s still that slender thread of reassurance to cling to. Yeah, we’re cutting it close, but we’ve still got 88 years to get our shit together. As Chasing Ice shows, however, the clock might be ticking faster than it appears.

For a glimpse of what Chasing Ice has to offer, check out the trailer below. The film opened at film festivals earlier this month, and rolls out in theaters in major U.S. cities on Thanksgiving Day. (Find a full schedule here.)