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Soul on ice
With an artist’s eye and a scientist’s measure, James Balog ’74 has been providing evidence of the Earth’s glaciers in decline
It was almost too perfect when I sat down with James Balog on the back deck of his house just outside Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and noticed that the apparatus he was using to chill his surgically repaired right knee carried the brand name “The IceMan.” Balog, the subject of a recent documentary called Chasing Ice, is surely the world’s premier photographer of glacial ice formations. This is a man who has captured upward of a million time-lapse images of frozen scenery in places like Greenland, Alaska, and the Alps, to show how glaciers are melting, cracking, collapsing, and receding. He is the Ice Man.
But now the Ice Man was tethered to the DonJoy IceMan, a blue-and-white cooler the size of two six-packs. It circulates frigid water through two hoses connected to dimpled black pads that wrap around the knee. Balog was under doctor’s orders to stop chasing ice for several months and spend hours a day with his knee elevated. All in all, a bad state of affairs for a guy who is used to a life of almost constant trekking. But a good one for me: I found myself spending the day with a man in the mood to reflect, to talk about his adventures in photography and his recent prominence (by way of National Geographic, Sundance, TEDGlobal, and a busy speaking schedule) in climate-change activism.
I had seen Chasing Ice at a Boston College screening in April. Balog was on hand to greet a crowd of 200 at Devlin Hall and take questions after the movie. He’s tall and rugged-looking and speaks with an easy eloquence. His photography is stark and pristine and suited to a modern art museum’s walls. He has the physical bravery of an extreme sports athlete. And he’s ventured into a new, public role: using the languages of art and science to deliver a warning about the effects of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—an invisible threat he believes is causing visible disruption. As he put it that evening, “Glaciers matter because they’re the canary in the global coal mine.”
Balog lives in a bluish-gray split-level lodge-style home that you find by taking a long and winding road to its final offshoot. GPS might or might not get you there—I followed detailed instructions that Balog’s wife, Suzanne, gave me over the phone. He was sitting on his front deck when I eased into the driveway on an early morning in May and parked behind his white Prius. He waved and directed me to come up. “It’s so quiet here,” I called out. “That’s how we like it,” he answered.
Two weeks out of surgery for a partial knee replacement, he was no longer on crutches but was walking gingerly. Suzanne had taken their 11-year-old daughter, Emily, to school. (His older daughter, Simone ’10, was away at King’s College in London, studying risk analysis in the department of geography.) He led me through the living room and onto the back deck, where he launched into a visual tour of the landscape. We were looking west over Fourmile Canyon. In the foreground was a downslope of ponderosa pines and scattered boulders, and beyond the canyon was snow-capped Arapaho Peak, which rises to about 13,000 feet. Our elevation was about 6,900 feet. He pointed to a snowy area in the far distance: “That’s the southernmost glacier of the Rockies,” he said.
Balog got comfortable in his green-mesh-and-metal zero-gravity reclining chair. On the verge of turning 61, the challenge facing him in post-op seemed only now to be sinking in. For months, he’d been considering an offer to go on a two-week, all-expenses-paid trip to photograph a scientific expedition set for August to Baffin Island, a remote and beautiful spot in the Canadian Arctic. It’s the kind of opportunity “I would have jumped at in two and a half seconds 10 years ago,” he said. He’d just decided to turn it down.
We covered a lot of ground, figuratively, as we spoke that morning on the deck. He told me about his upbringing in a woodsy part of New Jersey; and a formative summer in an Outward Bound program in Colorado; and his time at Boston College, when he’d hitchhike up to New Hampshire to hike and climb, and when, at 19, he first started carrying a simple Pentax camera with him. His love of the mountains took him west, where he enrolled in the University of Colorado and obtained a master’s degree in geography, concentrating on geomorphology.
At one point we paused so he could make a scheduled phone call to a wealthy young investor. Balog was hoping to enlist him in the funding of the Extreme Ice Survey, his continuing project to document changes in glaciers worldwide. Then Suzanne called in about lunch. They had an old friend coming over, a doctor who wanted to check on Jim’s progress. “He and I have known each other for almost 40 years,” Balog said. “We’ve done a lot of climbs together.”
Chasing Ice documents Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which began in 2007 to compile a visual record of melting and receding glaciers in the northern hemisphere. The film captures Balog and his original core team—a photo assistant, a videographer, an engineer, and two scientists—installing five cameras in Iceland, about a dozen in Greenland, five more in Alaska, and two in Montana. They travel by small plane, helicopter, canoe, dogsled, and, often, on foot. Early on, the film shows a self-possessed, white-knuckled Balog as the helicopter he’s riding in loses power and has to make an emergency landing.
To record changing ice year-round, Balog’s team invented a way to encase the cameras in protective boxes, power them with solar panels and batteries, and run them with automatic timers. But, as one of his assistants comments in the film, things can easily go wrong when you’re “putting really delicate electronics in the harshest conditions on the planet.” Returning to check cameras several months after the initial installation, Balog came face-to-face with the possibility that his expensive project might be a flop. “Everything we’re trying is getting thwarted,” he says in a moment of almost tearful frustration, as the video rolls. Camera systems were destroyed by falling rocks, buried under snow, or disabled by exploding batteries. Many of the timers failed. So it was back to the drawing board. Balog’s engineers designed a better timer and retraced their steps, retrofitting all two dozen stations. EIS now has 30 cameras pointed at glaciers around the globe, including on Mt. Everest and Antarctica.
In Chasing Ice, the time-lapse photography of EIS shows glaciers retreating by miles over two- and three-year periods. EIS cameras focused on the gigantic Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland bore witness to a calving in which an area the size of lower Manhattan broke into pieces. “It took a hundred years”—from 1900 to 2000—for the Ilulissat Glacier to recede eight miles, Balog says in the film. “From 2000 to 2010, it retreated nine miles.”
Produced and directed by Jeff Orlowski, who originally signed up with Balog as a 22-year-old volunteer videographer, Chasing Ice won a “best cinematography” nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It had its theatrical release in New York City in November of last year and since then has been shown in about 150 cities. The movie has reached a wider audience—in 171 countries—through airings on the National Geographic television channel.
In April, Balog told the Boston College crowd that every member of Congress has been given a copy of Chasing Ice. He was just back from a trip to Washington, where the movie had an Earth Day screening at the White House. (Agency heads and senior executive branch officials attended, though not President Obama. Balog isn’t sure whether the president has seen the film.) Even before the movie’s release, Balog ramped up his public speaking. He talks about climate change to college crowds and at environmental rallies but also at meetings attended by Wall Street bankers. His TED talk, “Time-lapse Proof of Extreme Ice Loss,” delivered in Oxford, England, in July of 2009, has been seen online by more than half a million viewers.
The presentation at Boston College, which helped kick off the annual Arts Festival, was sponsored by a telling array of organizations: the University’s Institute for the Liberal Arts (which funds interdisciplinary projects), the Boston College Energy and Environmental Alumni Network, the environmental studies program, student-led EcoPledge, and the Arts Council. Noah Snyder, an associate professor in the earth and environmental sciences department (another sponsor) introduced Balog at the screening, noting his unique style of “linking environmental themes and art.” Earlier that day, Balog had spoken to Snyder’s advanced class Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation (GE490).
In his Paul Revere role, Balog seems every bit the well-versed, science-literate activist, as he cites the rising level of atmospheric CO2 in parts per million (“We’re now at 396.8,” he said in April; over the past 800,000 years of rising and falling levels, the peak, before the Industrial Age, was never higher than 280.) At the same time, his work shows the soul of an artist—as if he’s driven by nothing more than the relentless pursuit of beauty. After the Boston College screening, one of the things I wanted to know was: Is he an artist who became an activist, or was it the other way around?
It turns out that he didn’t start out pursuing art or activism. Growing up in Watchung, New Jersey, which at the time was a remote suburb bordered by fields and woods, Balog realized in boyhood how much he loved being close to nature. The oldest of three boys, he remembers “trying somewhat misguidedly to engage with animals by shooting them.” For him, that was a way to be able to touch the feathers of a pheasant or the fur of a rabbit. “I used to be endlessly fascinated by seeing a deer walking around our backyard, and squirrels and rabbits and pheasants, and thinking, ‘My God, there’s a whole universe of characters out here, living their own lives, perfectly happily, paying no attention to us. There’s a parallel universe here, and isn’t this fantastic?’”
Balog’s parents came from coal-mining country in Pennsylvania; for them, education was the way out. His father became a chemist for Merck in his 20s and then found his way to a career analyzing pharmaceutical stocks on Wall Street. His mother loved travel and eventually opened a travel agency. She was the one who steered Jim to the Colorado Outward Bound school in the summer after his senior year in high school. When he saw a picture in the brochure of climbers rappelling off a cliff he knew immediately: “I want to do that.” He became “absolutely fixated on that landscape out there,” he said, waving off toward the Rockies as we sat on his deck.
Still, he went to college thinking he’d be a history major. “I had no more clear idea than that,” Balog recalled. “And my father said, ‘Well, I don’t know what you do as a history major—maybe you go and be a lawyer.’” Only in his senior year at Boston College did he begin to think that studying science could connect him to what he loved—the outdoors. He loaded up the science courses in his final year.
Becoming a photographer didn’t occur to him until he was almost finished with graduate school in Boulder. Deep into his dissertation, he realized he had no patience for the type of computer processing that was beginning to be integral to modern science. “I wanted to have dust on my boots. I wanted to go hiking, camping; I wanted to be up on mountain tops; I didn’t want to be in a dry, gray research lab, wrangling the intricacies of some software program. I hated it.”
He concluded he had two choices: to be a photographer or to find a job as a mountain guide. The latter seemed more limited and risky. While still in his mid-20s and working summers as an Outward Bound instructor, a friend showed him the work of nature photographers Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. As he became more serious about photography, he investigated the combat scenes of Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith, and the Depression-era images of migrant farmers taken by Dorothea Lange—work some critics refer to as “concerned photography.”
Even then, Balog had a kind of mountain climber’s perspective: He wanted to find “first ascents”—not to follow well-trod territory. “There are no first ascents left when you’re looking at black-and-white celebratory pictures of grand landscapes, or color for that matter,” he realized. “It’s all been done.” But there weren’t many photographers who were finding a story to tell about the changing circumstances of nature. Balog knew of one: Robert Adams, who happened to live about 20 miles down the road from him, in Longmont, Colorado. Adams was well-regarded in art circles for his “new topography” photographs showing the border areas between woods and encroaching suburbs. Balog went out to meet Adams and began to think of ways to follow his lead—to convey the landscape in the midst of change. “This is a big story,” he thought. “This conflict between humans and nature is a gigantic story, and there’s enough here to go for the rest of my life.”
All Balog knew about the photography profession at first was that there was a magazine called National Geographic publishing the kind of photographs he wanted to make. But neither scenic beauty nor the “new topography” made his early reputation. He followed that fascination with animals he developed in his youth. An early project led him to photograph big-game hunting in the Rockies. This led to publication of a book in 1984 called Wildlife Requiem, which showed wild animals in the moments before and after being shot. In 1990 he published a book called Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Species, which showed animals removed from nature and photographed in studio settings. National Geographic used a photo from the book—of a jaunty, open-armed orangutan—on its April 1990 cover. Along the way, Balog picked up commercial assignments based on his reputation for innovative photography of wild creatures; he photographed a black leopard for Yuban Coffee, for instance, and a gorilla for American Tourister luggage. His third book, Anima (1993), showed humans and exotic animals together, again in unusual studio compositions. In the late 1990s, he embarked on an effort to show trees in ways they had not been seen before. He used a system of rope climbing, for example, that allowed him to photograph a redwood at intervals, all the way up. He combined the photos, mosaic style, to give a view of the full tree. That led to the publication of the book Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, in 2004.
An assignment from the New Yorker that same year started him on his pursuit of ice. The magazine was preparing a three-part series on climate change (Elizabeth Kolbert’s influential work that became a 2006 book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change). Balog was hired to provide a photograph of a glacier. It was the dead of winter, and he knew that glaciers in the northern hemisphere would be covered with snow. He saw no aesthetic possibilities. He asked to be sent to Patagonia, where the ice would be in summer transition. Too much expense, he was told; find something closer.
He went to Iceland. He learned that glacial formations there were visible at places near the warmer Gulf Stream currents, where “you have these big tongues of ice” at the water’s edge. “You could see edges of these glaciers that were enormously evocative, aesthetically. They said decay and mortality and end. You could feel the end of the glacier happening right in front of you through the shapes and through the sculptures. That was huge for me. All the lights went off in my head. I realized this is what I didn’t know I could get.” He used the same composite style he had used with the redwoods; the result was an arresting two-page photo in the New Yorker.
Balog expanded the project, going back to Iceland in 2006, carefully marking his locations with the idea of returning in six months to the exact same spots to show the receding of the glaciers. Those photos became part of a National Geographic package in 2007 called “The Big Thaw.” While he was at the magazine’s offices in Washington, D.C., helping to edit the pictures, he had the idea that led to the all-consuming Extreme Ice Survey. “On one of my last days in Washington, I woke up in my hotel room and thought, ‘We should leave some time-lapse cameras out to watch the change, instead of me always having to go back.’” And then he realized that if he was going to go to the trouble of setting up a few cameras in Iceland, he might as well put up cameras in other areas—Greenland, Alaska, Montana.
There is a scene in Chasing Ice that shows Balog rappelling into a moulin, with his life seemingly hanging by a thread, so that he could get a perspective he wanted. The film also conveys the financial risks Balog took—he was in a hurry to advance the project and didn’t have nearly enough funding, even with assistance from National Geographic’s Expeditions Council and in-kind donations (including 25 cameras from Nikon), to cover what became about a half-million-dollar budget for the first year. He borrowed money out of his daughter’s college fund, he told me in Boulder, adding, “I’ve been around the block enough to know that was a huge, huge, huge risk.”
“That’s an awful way to run a business,” he said. In fact, “It’s not a business at that point, it’s a vocation, it’s a passion; you’re doing it because you have to do it. And that’s what being an artist is.”
That afternoon in Boulder, Balog showed me the two offices of the Extreme Ice Survey. The first was a rented storage room in a warren of below-ground offices on the edge of the University of Colorado campus. It holds dozens of cameras and related equipment, as well as some of his archives—old prints, books, negatives, hard drives. He wasn’t there for five minutes before he started lamenting the dreariness of the space. I commented that he must be one of those persons who doesn’t just like nature but needs it. “I could no more live in Manhattan than I could fly to the moon,” he said.
We drove to the headquarters of the Extreme Ice Survey, about three miles northeast of downtown. The office is off an access road near auto lots and low-lying industrial buildings. EIS rents a second-floor two-room suite in a slate-gray painted-cinderblock building that is the home of music studios owned by an old friend. Here, at least, Balog has a view from his window of the Flatirons, the broad mountainside rocks on the west side of Boulder.
Balog’s operation is converting to a nonprofit organization called Earth Vision Trust, which will support the Extreme Ice Survey. There are eight employees, most of whom are usually out doing research or field work—in May, for instance, one scientist was in Antarctica. The staffer you’re most likely to find in the office is Balog’s longtime assistant, who goes by the name Sport. (She told me her given name but forbade me from printing it. She’s been Sport for years.) “I like to tell the story that one of my first tasks was to call talent agents and tell them I was looking for a large-breasted pregnant woman who would pose nude with a chimpanzee,” she told me. This was in the early 1990s, when Balog was working on Anima.
Balog and I sat down in his half of the office and continued our conversation. There was a well-used black trail bike leaning against his laminate desk. The office has several large prints of his ice photos; I was admiring one with luminescent blues and greens that resembles an abstract painting. We talked about his reasons to continue, and even expand, the Extreme Ice Survey. With all those hundreds of thousands of images now stored on about 15 hard drives in the next room (“Everything’s stored in triplicate,” Sport told me, with archives in two other locations), why continue to set up time-lapse cameras? Hasn’t the point been made?
Balog believes that if a five-year record of disappearing glaciers is better than a three-year record, then a 10-year record is better than a five-year record. This may well be the biggest planetary story of our age—and, he says, it’s not as if the argument is won. That soon got him going on the power of the fossil fuels industry and the persistence of climate-change “denialists.” I brought up the columnist George Will, who regularly uses recent weather data to argue there’s no scientific proof of an emerging climate trend. The mention of Will caused Balog to use several unprintable epithets. “He’s smarter than that,” Balog said. “There’s no excuse for it. His grandchildren will curse his name.”
On the drive back to his house, Balog was still exercised, and he railed, in his passionate but modulated way, against the vested interests that, in his view, are preventing a transition to clean energy—and are counting on a complacent public to remain confused about whether there is scientific consensus about climate change. He was in Paul Revere mode. So, as we settled in for a late afternoon conversation, this time on his front deck where he reconnected with the DonJoy IceMan, it seemed the right time to sort out the activism-and-art-and-politics question.
“I think of myself as a storyteller first, and an artist second,” he said, adding, “and a scientist third.” But he balked at the term “activist.”
“It’s not good enough, and it hasn’t been good enough from the first day of this project, to simply make the pictures, collect the evidence, and say ‘O.K., we have it—you other guys tell the story’,” he said. “I want people to be aware of it, yes. That’s a kind of activism, I guess I have to admit. But I’m uncomfortable with the label, because to me it implies a politicization. One of my number-one leading principles in this is I want to rise above petty politics. This is a universal human issue. This doesn’t belong to left or right, Republican or Democrat.”
“I always cringe,” he continued, “with activism turning very quickly into ‘us versus them.’ ‘We’re the good guys, they’re the villains.’ When I’m ranting about the fossil fuel industry, as I was in the car, I also recognize that fossil fuels have brought a great deal of good to human society.” It remains important to him to “see both sides” and to recognize “the dualities, the yin and the yang, that exist in the current moment, all the time. I can’t escape that,” Balog said.
The guiding principle of his organization, he said, is “What is ours to do?” The answer he’s come up with is to bring art and science into the same conversation—”to create innovative artistic interpretation of these issues.”
We watched a few hummingbirds in the late afternoon sun, hovering at the feeder over the side of the deck, and we spoke about the difficulties in taking individual responsibility when it comes to such an overwhelming problem as climate change. He noted that the solar panels on his house result in an electricity bill of $8 per year. But does it matter? He paraphrased Gandhi: “Everything you do will be inadequate, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
After spending a day with Balog, one can’t help noticing that he projects an almost irksome omnicompetence. I asked Balog what he thinks he is bad at. “You know what I’m bad at?” he offered. “I’m bad at sleeping.” Also, he said, he’s a “computerphobe.” We agreed he had not been good at taking care of his knee. It was time to move indoors. Suzanne and Emily had returned with a couple of uncooked gourmet pizzas that needed to go in the oven and a kale salad.
I told Suzanne that I had been grilling her husband about what he is not good at. “He’s bad at slowing down,” Suzanne said. And that’s his immediate challenge—not just because he has to rehabilitate his knee, but because he intends to spend the next few months on a book project (words this time, not pictures), in which he will recount his adventures in photography and what he’s learned about the changing world. This will involve quiet solitary time in the converted studio at the end of his driveway (built by the previous owner as a garage for a Winnebago), which he calls his sanctuary.
After dinner, James and Emily moved to the living room to discuss Emily’s homework (about the planet Jupiter, as it happened). I spoke with Suzanne in the kitchen. She told me two things that surprised me. The first was about her husband’s most recent nerve-racking experience. She described a presentation he made in April at the University of Colorado about ice and glaciers that worked almost like performance art—a combination of photographic images, music, and freeform verse. “He was more nervous about that than going down into a moulin,” she said. “I’ve never seen him nervous like that. He was out of his comfort zone.”
I had been wanting to ask her about the other risks that Jim took—how could she bear to know he was climbing on ice formations, when one slip could be fatal? I assumed both she and Jim must have an unusual tolerance for risk. She stunned me by saying that she sees them both as being people who are “fairly risk-averse.” She explained that the only way she got through those years documented in Chasing Ice was to know a lot of the details of the precautions that would be in place. She said she coped by being logical, not emotional; she needed to be reassured that everything was carefully thought out. “There’s a lot of discussion” before he sets out, she said. “We turn over a lot of stones.”
Suzanne pointed to an area of the house I hadn’t noticed, just off the kitchen, against the far wall. There was a ladder that went up to an indoor treehouse Jim had built for Emily. Mountain lions roam the region, Suzanne explained, and Jim doesn’t like the idea of his daughter meeting one. You can’t avoid risks in life, she said—what’s important is to think carefully about the ones that are necessary.
Balog had told me earlier he wasn’t taking risks to “save the planet.” “The earth will always be O.K.,” he said. “The question is, What kinds of conditions will the humans of the future have to grapple with?” He’d gestured toward his daughter, then said, “The world that she’s going to live in is going to be a much more difficult and complicated place because of what climate change is going to put into it.”
Dave Denison is a writer based in the Boston area.
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