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We’d put Chasing Ice, a new documentary by Jeff Orlowski, on the second tier of movies-to-see over the holidays.  But as the first tier emptied out pretty fast and the rain kept coming in Northern California we went to the best theater in Marin –the Rafael— and took it in. It should have been first tier.

Orlowski and his team of movie making nuts –forty degrees below zero with sometime gale-force winds– follow acclaimed photographer James Balog for two years on the biggest project of his life. Not only is an incredible story told but moving images of fearful beauty paint it indelibly.  Balog is no stranger to the outdoors.  Attracted to the relations he finds between humans and nature he has been shooting amazing photos for years.  [For a display of his work spend some time at JamesBalog.com]

In 2006, while on a world wide shoot to document changes in the great glaciers for National Geographic, Balog had an epiphany.  Although coming from a science background [graduate degree in geomorphology] he had been a soft skeptic of the climate change warnings of the time, thinking they were mostly from computerized models and not well connected to events-in-the-world.  During the National Geographic shoot he realized that great changes were in fact happening in the here and now and were happening faster than most believed.

His report was the cover story of National Geographic June of 2007 but that was just the beginning for Balog.  As a photographer he knew and trusted visuals.  For most of us the eye is king. The eye is experience itself.  Without it we have only belief or disbelief in what others talk about. With it we have, as Balog says, “…rational observation of rational evidence reasonably observed by reasonable people.  He knew that what he had seen was not being seen by others and he set out to change that.

He founded the Extreme Ice Survey [EIS] with the intention of doing time lapse photography of key glaciers around the world.  Consulting with glaciologists and technical teams he eventually set up 43 cameras in 18 places in the extreme northern hemisphere.  Using Nikon D200s with special circuit board timers, weather proof solar-battery systems and anchored-to-the-rock tripods he set them to photograph the same spot every thirty minutes during daylight hours.  The result is the heart of Chasing Ice  — vast tundras of moving ice growing and shrinking with the seasons but inexorably getting smaller and smaller.  ‘Then and now’ shots demonstrate what has been lost.  Great rivers of blue water and new wetlands, mud and ponds appear where once 100,000 year old ice stood.

It’s more than a simple moving gallery of retreating glaciers, though.  It’s an adventure story about Balog’s determination, even suffering from a much operated on knee, to do the work and to do it right.  The first year of failure, when they return to find many of the camera timers had failed, is documented for us.  We can feel the disappointment.  [I would have been interested at this point to know more about his funding sources, their disappointment, and how he had to convince them to stay the course.]

There are some incredible shots of team members being lowered into vast chasms of ice as water falls the size of Yosemite’s Angel Falls, thunder past.  Balog himself creeps out to the edge of what after all is simple water in temporary immobility to get a shot he wants.  Rock climbing is one thing; doing it on ice is another entirely.

Though the important story is the disappearance of great glaciers, not to reappear in our children’s children’s children’s life times, the ‘money shot’ is of the greatest calving ever caught on record — a block of ice as big as lower Manhattan and three times as tall as its tallest buildings.  It is truly phenomenal to see it break away and slowly turn,  vertical cliffs becoming football field horizontals, as terrifying as watching a great ship going down.

Here’s a clip,

but really, you have to see the whole film on a big screen to get what Balog hopes, and I along with him, will be a life altering experience.

For more: The Extreme Ice Survey

Chasing Ice official site

Chasing Ice Facebook

Balog Wiki

Chasing Ice at Internet Movie Database

Nova and a transcript with Balog.