The Snow Report
“We’ve all skied nasty rain crust before, but this was something else,” James Balog told me when we met up in Ouray, Colorado, in early January 2012. “Absolutely, unbelievably horrible.”
Yesterday, before I arrived, Balog and his field assistant, 29-year-old Matthew Kennedy, skinned off the west side of Red Mountain Pass, just south of Ouray, to download images from a weatherproof time-lapse camera they’d positioned on a ridgetop, at 12,186 feet. Now I’m tagging along as they check on a second high-altitude camera, part of a long-term survey documenting the effects of climate change on hydrology patterns in the American West.
Thankfully, the sun has softened the thin, wind-hammered snowpack, and after an hour of easy skinning we reach Balog’s rig, a modified Nikon D200. It’s sitting inside a hard case with a plexiglass window, bolted in place about halfway up a 20-foot instrument mast—a steel tower festooned with various devices measuring atmospheric conditions. Using a safety harness, Balog climbs the tower’s rungs, swaps out a memory card, and makes sure the custom hardware—which he helped design—is doing its job, directing the camera to snap a picture every 60 minutes during daylight. Kennedy shoots some B-roll of the 60-year-old Balog hanging off the structure, but we don’t linger long. We’ve got other cameras to check on and a dicey descent back to the car.
The two setups, which Balog refers to as dust cameras, are part of a research project he’s working on with scientists at the University of Colorado. When dust from western windstorms settles on snowpack in large amounts—which has been happening with increasing frequency over the past decade—it changes the albedo, or reflectivity, of the snow. The snow absorbs more energy and evaporates faster, causing spring runoff to start one or two months early and reducing overall runoff by five percent—which translates to 800,000 acre-feet of water, more than twice the annual Colorado River water allocation for Las Vegas.
“Which is a big deal,” says Jeffrey Deems, the project’s lead researcher and a scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), “especially when you consider that the Colorado River system is the foundation of a multibillion-dollar economy and the major water supply for 30 million people in seven states.”
The dust cameras are an outgrowth of Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, an ongoing project that he launched in 2007 to document the melting of the earth’s great ice sheets. Using 48 time-lapse cameras positioned on 24 glaciers at five major locations—Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska, and the northern Rocky Mountains—EIS has captured more than a million images to date. Made up of a loose affiliation of photographers, scientists, and volunteers, the survey has resulted in two National Geographic cover stories, a Nova segment, two books, and the feature-length documentary Chasing Ice, which won a cinematography award at Sundance last year and made its theatrical debut in New York City in November. By then the film had won more than 20 awards and been screened at some 50 festivals.
The accolades are nothing new for Balog, who has enjoyed a long and decorated career as an environmental photographer, adventurer, and, most recently, climate-change researcher. His work has been exhibited in more than 100 museums and galleries, and in 1996 he became the first photographer commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a set of stamps, which featured Balog’s signature shots of endangered species. But nothing has resonated quite like the ice images. “The grind of giant glaciers has become one of the undertones of our era, and it’s taken too long for people to viscerally understand the power of climate change,” says Bill McKibben, the author and climate activist. “Balog’s images are finally helping do the trick.”
Chasing Ice was directed by first-timer Jeff Orlowski and produced by Orlowski, Jerry Aronson, and Paula DuPré Pesmen, who won an Oscar for her work on the dolphin-slaughter documentary The Cove. It can be tough to watch; audiences are visibly shaken as miles of glaciers vanish before their eyes. From 2007 to 2010, the Columbia Glacier in Alaska receded so much—two and a half miles—that, on three separate visits, Balog’s team had to move one of its fixed cameras just to keep the glacier in the viewfinder. At Greenland’s Ilulissat Glacier, the team documented the largest iceberg calving ever caught on film. “In 10 years,” Balog says, “it retreated more than it had in the previous 100.”