The Snow Report
Getting the images and footage wasn’t easy. As you see in the film, Balog and his team waded into frigid waters in Iceland, clung to ice-rimed rock faces in Alaska, and got battered by wind, snow, and subfreezing temperatures as they fiddled with cameras in some of the harshest environments on the planet. But nothing, including several surgeries to fix Balog’s damaged knees, gets in the way of his obsession to capture the shrinking of the world’s glaciers. “We need to be grown-up enough as artists to look at this stuff with eyes wide open,” he says. “And if audiences can’t take it, too bad.”
A FEW HOURS AFTER our field trip, we hop into Balog’s old Honda Pilot and head to his family’s vacation yurt near Ridgway, the next town over from Ouray. Balog lives with his wife and two daughters in the foothills above Boulder, but the yurt is where they come to unplug. It sits about a quarter of a mile off an unplowed section of dirt road, so we strap on our skis and skin in for the last mile and a half.
If there’s a better view in Colorado, I haven’t seen it. Looking east, a string of thirteeners and fourteeners, including Teakettle Mountain and Mounts Sneffels and Ridgway loom regally in the distance. Closer in, the scene isn’t as pretty. The gently sloping meadow just northeast of the yurt is littered with hundreds of aspens that have died from sudden aspen decline (SAD), which has blighted nearly a fifth of Colorado’s stands. Warmer, drier conditions have severely stressed the trees, leaving them susceptible to pests and fungi. The next hill is even worse.
“All of this was filled with trees in 2002,” Balog says, waving at a large swath of dead timber. Working to document the effects of SAD for a Colorado non-profit called For the Forest, Balog has set up two time-lapse cameras near the yurt. One is taking wide-angle shots of the tips of three growing trees; the second is positioned about a foot from the trunk of a mature aspen. Its bark is cracked, and it’s oozing black stuff out of a wound that Kennedy calls its Eye of Sauron.
At other locations in the Rockies, Balog has set up beetle cams. Since 2000, more than 50 million acres of ponderosa and whitebark pines—an area roughly the size of Kansas—have been harmed or killed by an unprecedented outbreak of bark beetles, which burrow inside and consume the trees’ soft cambium. Sustained cold temperatures are required to kill beetle eggs and keep their populations in check, but the recent spate of warm winters and severe droughts has tipped the balance in favor of the insects.
This die-off has cost the timber industry billions, but the biggest concern is the fuel it’s providing for wildfires. “Many of the trees are just now starting to fall,” says John Bennett, former executive director of For the Forest. “They’re basically a huge pile of kindling on the forest floor.”
Like the dust cameras, the tree and beetle cams are part of Balog’s larger mission to document what he calls “the Anthropocene in action.” Anthropocene means “new man,” and the term was first used in a geological context in 2000, when Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist from Holland, coined it at a scientific conference. The idea is that the Holocene epoch of geologic time, which began around 12,000 years ago, has ended. Sometime in the past few hundred years, it was supplanted by a new time frame called the Anthropocene. This concept is being looked at seriously by geologists; for it to fully take hold, experts will have to conclude that human activities—like population growth and the burning of fossil fuels—will be clearly discernible in the rock record of the future.
Over the past decade, the notion has gained steam: in 2008, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the group of scientists who officially determine the time frames of epochs, began reviewing it. The process will likely take years, but for many scientists and climate-change activists the truth is already out there.