Glacier time-lapse images reveal 'epochal change'

Nothing is quite as convincing as photographic evidence. And when James Balog looked over his time-lapse images of an Icelandic glacier, everything he thought he knew about climate change .... changed. Now, he wants to record one of Canada's glaciers.

U.S. photography wants to bring time-lapse cameras to B.C. coastal glacier

The Columbia Glacier calves icebergs into Columbia Bay west of Valdez, Alaska. The ice shown in the bergs was deposited in snowstorms 300 to 500 years ago. (James Balog/exremeicesurvey.org)

Nothing is quite as damning or convincing as photo evidence.

And when James Balog looked over his time-lapse photography of an Icelandic glacier, everything he thought he knew about climate change .... changed.

"Your basic human perception of this stuff is that major epochal, geologic scale change happened a long time ago or will happen a long time in the future.

"[But] when we looked at these pictures, we realized — good God — we're right in the middle of epochal change happening right now. It's happening right in front of our cameras," recounts Balog, an American photographer, mountaineer and founder of the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS).

The survey documents the shrinking and retreat of Earth's glaciers using cameras placed in strategic positions near the outflow of the giant ice sheets. Cameras are left in place for months at a time and take one to two pictures an hour. The end result are short films documenting the death of glaciers.

Photographer James Balog says his time-lapse images of glaciers reveal startling changes taking place quickly on a geologic scale. (CBC)
"The reason why glaciers are important is it's the place where you can see and hear and feel and touch climate change in action," says Balog.

EIS has cameras at 18 glaciers around the world. They range from Greenland to the Andes and from Alaska to the Himalayas.

Now Balog wants to set up shop in British Columbia.

"The coast range of British Columbia — the westernmost mountains — is one of the fastest-changing areas in the whole world of glaciers. It's really, really incredible how much the ice is melting down and flowing out and how much the ice is just peeling back from from the surfaces of those mountains," explains Balog.

B.C. glaciers reveal geologic past

Dr. Brian Menounos shares Balog's surprise. He teaches geography at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. The glaciers of B.C. are a big part of his research. He is startled by his findings.

"In some cases we're finding trees that were overrun sometime in the geologic past.... These trees were killed by a glacier advancing into a valley some five or six sometimes even 7,000 years ago," says Menounos.

The amount of water a retreat of that magnitude represents is overwhelming. Menounos uses satellites to calculate how much water B.C.'s ice sheets are losing every year.

"We could take the city of Ottawa and essentially flood it with about seven metres or 22 feet of water each year," reveals Menounos.

Balog scouted the Bridge Glacier about 90 kilometres northwest of Whistler. Between 2005 and 2010, the glacier pulled back 1,100 metres — that's more than 200 metres a year.

"When I went over it, it was just mind-boggling. There was this huge tongue of ice that was in the process of just collapsing into this lake. It's a spot I would really like to go back to," said Balog. 

"And for that matter, put a time-lapse camera up there and watch the successive changes of that ice tongue over the next five years, because it is really an epic change that is ongoing right now."

With files from Margo McDiarmid