Chasing Ice

Photographer James Balog and director Jeff Orlowski talk about the grunt work behind their new documentary project, a beautiful and frightening chronicle of so much melting ice

Jan 26, 2012
Outside Magazine
Chasing Ice

Trekking in

Checking the cameras

Checking the cameras

Chasing Ice

In the water

CHASING ICE DOCUMENTS THE WORK of James Balog, The North Face sponsored photographer who launched the Extreme Ice Survey in 2007. The goal? Illustrate the effects of climate change. The method? Place 27 time-lapse cameras at receding glaciers around the world to record their history. The results are magnificent—and terrifying. We spoke with Balog and director Jeff Orlowski about the nitty gritty detail that went into the making of the film.

What was the most remote camera location, and what was the journey like to get there?
Orlowski: Getting to Greenland alone you have to go through Copenhagen now, so we would have to fly from Colorado to the east coast to Copenhagen, back to Kangerlussuaq.

Balog: Kangerlussuaq is on the west coast of Greenland. It’s sometimes a couple of stops to get from Copenhagen to there.

Orlowski: Then another flight at least in Greenland, then helicopters.

Balog: Or boats or dog sleds to get out to the actual camera site. There’s one site where there’s two cameras currently up in northwestern Greenland, at Petermann Glacier. That is up in a place where there is probably no human being except maybe every second or third year. It’s really way, way out there. I can’t tell you what the latitude is. It might be about 78 or 79 degrees north up in the northwestern corner of the country. There’s no villages within hundreds of miles, no military bases or weather stations or anything. It’s just out there.

What are some of the more harrowing conditions you’ve had to endure when trekking out to the cameras?
Balog: I think temperature-wise it would be Greenland in the wintertime, and that was minus 30 degrees, basically. Wind-wise and storm-wise, it’s probably Iceland.

Orlowski: Adam and I had some bad winds in Greenland, the katabatic winds just coming off the glacier. It’s a temperature difference that creates these really high-powered winds. We were camping in 90-mile-per-hour winds. Our tents broke, the aluminum poles sheared in half. We lost a couple tents from heavy winds. The temperature in Greenland in the wintertime, those were minus 30 degree temperatures and we got frostnip touching cameras. I thought I was gonna die one night because our heater wasn’t working, and I woke up in the middle of the night because my teeth were chattering so much—that’s what woke me up. There were some cold, cold conditions.

Balog: And Iceland has incredibly violent storms. There’s a volcano right up above the glacier and the air masses tend to come from over that volcano and down to where the cameras are—and you get these violent bursts of wind and storm that come in these pulses. It’s kind of uncanny how it gets this rhythm going. It’ll be mildly unpleasant for 15 minutes, then for about five or 10 minutes you’re getting ripped every which way and eaten up by the snow and the wind. In the summertime it’s rain, but it’s almost as violent.

Orlowski: When we’re in Greenland, we are out in very, very remote locations. A helicopter drops us off. We’re there camping for a week with all of our provisions. There are some landscapes where there’s no wildlife at all. You’re just out on the ice. All you hear is water. And there was one time where, due to bad weather, a helicopter couldn’t come pick us up. James was stuck there for five days without any opportunity to get back. It was full-on, “Sorry we can’t get you, we’ll get you in a couple days.” Fortunately he had enough food to last.

How much does your gear weigh altogether on these trips?
Balog: It just depends on what the objective of the trip is. I don’t think we ever left the Denver airport without 800 pounds or 1,000 pounds of gear. In the beginning of the deployment, when all that stuff got shipped to Greenland especially, I don’t know. 1,500 pounds? 2,000 pounds? It goes up on U.S. Air Force flights that go from a National Guard base near Albany. It gets airlifted on a C1-30 up to a base on Greenland. Then we have to put it on the commercial flights to go further north. The logistics are crazy. It’s all you think about for a while.

Orlowski: The first time we went to Greenland, James made me and the whole team look at everything we were bringing. We laid everything out in James’s garage and he approved everything that was coming. I thought, “Why are we going through this level of scrutiny?” Then I learned the helicopters costs $4,000 an hour and we were paying thousands of dollars on excess baggage on every leg of these trips. Hundreds of dollars on some, thousands on others. We were paying per kilogram so every extra thing with us counted. You were bringing only the absolute necessities. We also get very good at hiding our excess weight from the airlines. When you go to check-in, they give you baggage tags on Air Greenland for how much weight you’re allowed to bring onto the plane. So we would each check in separately. We would hide all our extra gear that we were gonna carry onto our plane with somebody. We’d check in individually with a very small lightweight bag that they would approve, and then we would try to sneak onto the plane with all the extra camera gear, lenses, bodies, video cameras. And most of the time it was successful. But it became an art form of sneaking the camera gear onto the plane.

Tell us about your cameras. James, you had to build them yourself because they didn’t exist.
Balog: It was about four-and-a-half months worth of developing the technology for this thing, at least in the first wave of it. You have two basic problems: One is the electronics of telling the camera when to fire, and giving it power so that it can fire. And then the other problem is protecting the equipment against the weather. I was doing a lot of things by trial and error to see what would actually work. And it was really complicated.

How did you anchor and winterize the cameras to withstand harsh conditions year-round?
Orlowski: They had to withstand 200 mph winds and negative 40-degree temperatures. And James had to build a system that could endure huge variations in temperature. I think a lot of that was trial and error. And when we installed stuff, we learned as we were installing them what was working and what didn’t work, and we ended up creating a system that could be modified for almost any landscape. The first time we went to Iceland, we were installing a system we had designed for tripods. We were gonna use the tripods, secure them to the ground, and when we got there we realized the ground was too soft. The tripods would shift and they wouldn’t stay.

Balog: There wasn’t nearly as much bedrock to stand these things on as we’d thought.

Orlowski: So we ended up having to mount them into the mountainside, and we had to completely redesign the system. We kind of created two systems: one that could be mounted against a cliff face or a wall, and one that could be mounted directly into the ground. And those two systems allowed us to work in pretty much any environment.

Balog: We discovered the first problems in Iceland. That was March of 2007. It was the first field test of all these ideas. As soon as we got there it was like, “Oh shit.” All this thinking and all this work to build a support system, and all the boxes and boxes of gear that went with that idea. And it was already ordered and billed for 25 cameras. I had 25 cameras worth of gear that was suddenly junk. We ended up donating it to the University of Colorado’s engineering department. In any event, we were running down to the local hardware store 50 miles away, trying to cobble together pieces and parts in new tools and all kinds of stuff to build a new theory about how to put these up on the cliff faces along the volcano.

Orlowski: And a hardware store in Iceland is not exactly a well-provisioned hardware store. It was definitely jerry-rigging a system that would work, that we later improved as we went back and re-tested them. That very first camera we installed, it was on a cliff and got completely knocked off. This rock fell, cracked a hole in the top of the camera box and the whole thing sheared right off of its mount. We’ve had cameras buried under snow in Alaska, under 20 feet of snow. The cameras were mounted to bedrock using the bolts you would use to go rock-climbing with, that are designed to support thousands of pounds of weight as you pull on them. We had four of those in the base of the camera and another four cables securing this thing, but when we went back to one of these systems, we had to dig it out from under the snow. The entire system was shaking. It was completely loose. The weight of the snow had pulled the bolts out of the rocks.

You’ve experienced so many setbacks along the way. Were there moments where you felt you should scale down the project?
Balog: There were a lot of times when I really felt like I was over my head, because of the electronics. Not only did I not know about some really obscure questions of how electrical systems worked, I was kind of mentally resistant to learning about it. And when I tried to learn about it, I found the guys who were trying to explain it weren’t doing a very good job. They had been in an electronic world for so long, they couldn’t speak to laymen about it. So eventually I got aggravated with the electronics, as I so often do still today. It was like, “God, this is just driving me crazy that I have to do this.” But as with all the big projects that I’ve done, it pushed me into new creative and technical territory in pursuit of the aesthetic ideal I was after. So I kind of had to grit my teeth and bear it. But believe me, it was about 15 times a day I was thinking, “Geez, I’m over my head on this,” or “Dammit, I don’t like this,” or “How did I ever get involved with this craziness?”

How frequently do you check on the cameras and upload the photos?
Balog: It depends on where they are. If the site’s relatively accessible, like they are in Iceland, we can get there three or four times a year. Greenland it’s once a year, Montana it’s once a year.

How many photos do you take in one year?
Balog: It depends on latitude and how much daylight there is, but one year is equal to approximately 4,000 frames that we’re shooting once an hour. That’s 4,000 frames per camera.

Orlowski: How many frames totally have been collected so far?

Balog: We’re somewhere in excess of 800,000. We’ve kind of lost track, but now each camera is shooting every half-hour in most cases. Some are shooting every 20 minutes, but basically every half-hour it gives you about 8,000 frames.

Do you get excited when it’s time to visit a camera and retrieve new photos?
Balog: It’s like opening presents on Christmas morning. Every time you go to a camera, it’s like, “Wow, here we are, here’s the goodies, let’s see what we have.” And of course at the same time, you always have this sense of dread in your gut, like oh god, what if it didn’t work? That anxiety about the failure was much more acute in the beginning of the project, when we really needed to have the technical things working. We needed content. In the world of academic science, if you do the experiment, you get points in heaven. But in the world of picture-making, you don’t get points in heaven for experiments. You only get points in heaven for having a picture.

Which glaciers have shown the most alarming decay?
Balog: It’s hard to define that because are you dealing with volume of ice? Or are you dealing with percentage of change in relation to the size of that glacier? Because a little glacier can have a lot of retreat in relationship to its size. On a percentage basis it can be enormous, but it doesn’t deliver the volume of ice that a big glacier having a little bit of change is doing. So how do you describe it? I think one of the most dramatic examples certainly is Columbia Glacier in Alaska. That’s now had almost three miles of retreat since we’ve started the project. We actually just got an email from one of our partners in Anchorage over the weekend. There’s actually a beach that’s now formed where the ice used to be.

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