The Snow Report
“Ice is just the first chapter,” says Dennis Dimick, executive editor for the environment at National Geographic. “The story is much bigger than that. What’s going to happen to the jet stream? Rainfall? To corn, wheat, and soy crops in the Midwest? People will start to pay attention when our entire global food supply is disrupted and the question becomes: What’s for lunch, dude?”
BALOG HAS THE LANKY, craggy look one associates with a seasoned mountaineer, which he is. In the late 1970s, he began scaling peaks in the Alps, the Himalayas, and Alaska, and he was also teaching Outward Bound courses in Colorado. He got serious about photography in the 1980s, while he was in the field earning a master’s in geomorphology, the study of the evolution and configuration of landforms, at the University of Colorado. His interest in earth sciences has informed his work ever since, even though, early in his career, he was not a climate-change believer.
“I had studied ice in graduate school, and I was skeptical of the computer modeling they were using,” says Balog. “I thought, Jesus Christ, they’ve come up with this thing to get people all fired up. I thought it was overblown.” He long ago abandoned that view, but it’s a story line that presenters rarely resist when he’s introduced. “People always exaggerate that part of my past,” he shrugs.
Among other cataclysmic events, Balog has photographed the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The scale of such events, and their impact on the human psyche, will always fascinate him. “We still carry this old caveman-imprint idea that we’re small, nature’s big, and it’s everything we can manage to hang on and survive,” Balog says. “When big geophysical events happen—a huge earthquake, tsunami, or volcanic eruption—we’re reminded of that.”
The push and pull between humans and the natural world is a theme in two of Balog’s best-known early projects. For his 1990 book, Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife, he decided to shoot threatened species using the techniques of fashion photography. Each of the 62 animals in the book is treated as a star, photographed in front of intricately lit artificial backdrops. This style has often been mimicked since, but no one had seen anything like it at the time.
For 2004’s Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest, Balog spent six years photographing North America’s largest and oldest trees. At first he constructed elaborate portrait studios to photograph the bases of old-growth trees. Then he started scaling them, everything from huge oaks to sequoias and redwoods, shooting the giants in segments as he rappelled down. The resulting mosaics, which he painstakingly stitched together from hundreds of images, were innovative and powerful. Assessing Balog’s creations, photojournalist James Nachtwey says that “he makes us see, with both majesty and tenderness, the depth and tragedy of our loss unless we take action.”
As groundbreaking as Survivors and Tree were, neither has had the reach of Balog’s ice work. “It’s the biggest story on the planet, and Balog is at the forefront of it,” says Louie Psihoyos, executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society and director of The Cove. In 2012, Balog formed a non-profit, Earth Vision Trust, to help tell this story through the media, education, and outreach. The idea, essentially, is to shock people into action, and his list of supporters includes people like Rahm Emanuel and Robert Redford. In 2009, Balog presented his findings to the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy and also served as a NASA and State Department representative at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. “There are a lot of people talking about climate change,” says Psihoyos. “But when you’re talking about it, it’s like dancing on the radio. You can’t see it.”
While there are plenty of startling statistics in Chasing Ice, Balog’s quest “to show geological changes happening on a human time scale,” as he often puts it, drives the narrative. The film’s message is the same as 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, but the style couldn’t be more different. Al Gore’s film was wonky and data driven; Orlowski lets adventure footage do the talking. An engine on a bush plane fails, dogsledding teams biff spectacularly, and four-season tents get shredded in gale-force winds. In one telling scene, Balog and his team repeatedly rappel into a moulin, a near vertical fissure in a glacier, on Greenland’s ice sheet. “Every night we’d look at the images in the tent,” Orlowski recalls, “and every night he’d say, ‘They’re not good enough.’ We spent four days there.”