Day 6

Photographer James Balog's struggle to capture climate change

Photographer James Balog has made it his mission to document the world's melting glaciers. Brent talks to James about the logistical challenges of his work as he gets ready to head to Paris for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference.

From Iceland to Antarctica to the summit of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, American photographer James Balog has made it his mission to document the world's melting ice. Risking it all for that perfect shot. It's his way of convincing people of the dire consequences of climate change. Brent Bambury talks to James about the logistical challenges of his work, and what it's like to rappel off the side of a glacier, as he gets ready to head to Paris for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brent Bambury: We're going to talk about ice today, which you call insanely ridiculously beautiful. But before we do, given the amount of time you spend in the extremes of the planet, how do you like the cold?

James Balog: I actually like the cold, I'm not a hot weather guy. I find the cold is kind of how your brain reacts to it, how you think about it. But also you have to be willing to dress properly. And if you dress right, and you get your attitude adjusted, it can be perfectly pleasant and tolerable.
BB: I want to talk about what it's like on the surface of a glacier. In the documentary Chasing Ice there's a scene where you're rappelling down a deep crevice in Greenland. I can't even imagine how deep that hole is. It did look to me as though if you fell in it would be the end of you.
JB: Oh definitely it would be the end of you. The bottom was probably a couple hundred feet down, but it's known that any sort of vertical channel like that, that's draining meltwater off the ice sheet, is eventually going all the way to the bottom of the ice sheet. And in the places where we were working, bedrock is something like approximately two or three thousand feet below the surface. 

BB: So tell us about the power of the water that can create a hole that large in a glacier, which is something that we think of as being completely solid.

JB: These big ice sheets are anything but solid. They're actually a big Swiss cheese. Up on the surface the sun melts the water and the melt water is everywhere on the surface. It slowly accumulates in small creeks and they flow into larger creeks and rivers. That in turn flows into lakes. And then the lakes are the source of these much larger rivers that go winding across the ice sheet until they hit a big crevasse, a crack in the ice.

A good friend of mine - a scientist at the University of Washington - calculated the volume of water that went down one of these gigantic moulins through the ice sheet and it was something equivalent to about two times the volume of Niagara Falls for a couple hours. 

BB: What does it sound like when you're there?

JB: Well, it's this great roaring sound. I'll tell you, rappelling down into those things is scary as can be. Because you have this awful feeling of 'My God, there is the underworld, it's waiting to take me, and I better not make a mistake because I'm not coming back if something goes wrong!'

BB: And in spite of that, in the film Chasing Ice, you say 'I think I'm going to crawl out onto this broken fin' which is the way you describe the little promontory of ice that you edge out onto so you can take a picture into one of these moulins. But the surface of the glacier, you just described it as Swiss cheese. How do you know that you're safe manoeuvring the surface of it?

JB: We did learn over time that sometimes there are surprises and you can be going over surfaces that you thought were safe that you later discover weren't so safe. We in hindsight realized we had had a couple of close calls that we hadn't even realized we were making when we were making them.

BB: So tell us in terms of the geologic change, what's happening? 

JB: Well, I'm kind of in awe that I'm living through this epoch of monumental geologic change. Basically we're in the middle of the kind of historic change that most of us think only happens over hundreds or thousands or millions of years. Because our human life-spans are so short you tend to think 'Well, you know my puny little life - the Earth is long, and I'm short-lived and nothing much will happen while I'm alive.'

But in fact, one of the great discoveries of modern Earth sciences - in a number of different fields, not just the ice - is that these big historic changes tend to happen in pulses. And you can have enormous amounts of change happening in very short periods of change right around you. That's obvious when you see a volcano blow up, but you can also have huge change in river valleys as a consequence of relatively short-lived floods. You can have huge changes in ice sheets because of this huge impact of the human race and our changing of the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning and in our changes in the oceans because of fossil fuel burning. 

BB: You describe it as a "apoco-geologic" change, but at the start of your career you were skeptical of climate change even though you were educated in science. Why is that?

JB: Yeah, you know at the time I had been around a lot of serious environmental issues. I had been looking at the endangerment and near extinction of many animals, which I'm still looking at today. I was looking at deforestation quite a bit and when the climate change story started to get more intense I just kind of had this knee-jerk reaction. I'm almost embarrassed to say it, that I felt that maybe this was an activist issue that was being blown out of proportion for the sake of rallying the activist base.

But I also really didn't have it in my head - and a lot of people don't have this in their heads - that homo sapiens are capable of having such an enormous combined force that we could change the basic biologic, physical, and chemical make-up of this planet. We don't think that we have that power. After I took the time to learn the story that was captured in the records of ancient climates, as seen in the ice cores that have been brought up from the layers of Greenland and Antarctica, I realized 'Oh my God, I've been wrong about all this' and this is a huge story that I have to witness if I care about nature. 

BB: So that's the evidence you've got from the core of the ice, but it's the surface of the ice that really drove you to create the Extreme Ice Survey, which is your organization. And you started in 2007 with five cameras in Iceland and the idea was to place fixed cameras on a time-lapse setting. Why did you need to do it that way?

JB: That first year we ultimately put out 25 cameras and today we have 41 out on 24 different glaciers - from the very northern latitudes all the way down to Antarctica. What we're doing is shooting every half hour around the clock as long as it's daylight. These cameras are permanently mounted on bedrock by the glacier and they sit there blinking open every 30 minutes making a record of how the landscape is changing.

What this does for you, is it shows you time unfolding in front of your eyes. The satellites pick up some sense of that, but mostly the satellites don't revisit a site any more frequently than every few weeks. So when you see it at very high frequency through the cameras, you get a chance to see how fast things are changing.
BB: But this is an unforgiving landscape and we know that there are rock falls, there are glaciers calving apart, there's enormously cold temperatures. And there's a scene in Chasing Ice when you weep because you realize that a camera had malfunctioned. Did you ever feel that the technology you had was not up to the job?

JB: Oh God, it was so overwhelming. It was ridiculous that first six months. Many times I thought 'Boy I'm crazy.' I've got all this money, all this manpower, all this time committed, all these declarations I've made to my supporters. And yet the equipment stands a very good chance of failing miserably. It was not a pretty feeling to have in one's solar plexus.

BB: You're 63-years-old and what you're doing has taken a physical toll on your body. You've had multiple surgeries on your knees. You are famous for doing what doctors say you shouldn't do. How did you manage to climb Mount Kilimanjaro earlier this year?

JB: Yeah, wretched! That was my anxiety. I'd been stressing about that for months before I went. You know just kind of mentally flagellating myself saying, 'James, you're an idiot for doing this. You're going to come back with that prosthetic actually come loose in your knees. The screws will come out or something and you'll go back in for surgery.' But I was just bound and determined to do it. Thanks be, I'm okay.

BB: Do you worry about what will happen if your body wears out before your work is done?

JB: Oh my body is definitely wearing out before my work is done!

BB: James, you're heading to Paris to to participate in the 2015 Climate Change Conference. What's at stake in Paris, what do we have to get right and how important is that this time?

JB: Yeah, it's critical that the world acts on the clear and concrete information that's in front of us about climate change. There's no significant scientific doubt about the reality of humans having an impact on the world's climate. This is an issue that we've created over a couple hundred years - smokestack by smokestack, tailpipe by tailpipe. And it's going to take a lot of incremental change to go back in the other direction. But I think that we're rising to the occasion. 

BB: Well, you've played a role in telling the story of parts of the world that are very vulnerable and it's been a pleasure to talk to you today. Thank you for being with us. 

JB: Thank you. My pleasure. Well let's see what happens.