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In The Arctic, A Time-Lapse View Of Climate Change

Intent on documenting the effects of climate change, nature photographer James Balog ventured into ice-bound regions with 26 time-lapse cameras, which he programmed to shoot a frame every daylight hour for three years.



Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
In The Arctic, A Time-Lapse View Of Climate Change


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest has been going to some of
the most remote and dangerous places on earth, witnessing natural
phenomena that no humans have witnessed before, and he’s making it
possible for scientists and you and me to watch, too.

James Balog is documenting the melting of glaciers around the world, the
most visible manifestations of climate change on the planet. With the
help of helicopters and special gear, he has been able to get out on the
ice in remote places so he can watch glaciers crack and icebergs break
off, follow glacial waterfalls that are drilling holes in the ice, and
track the water from disappearing glacial lakes.

Balog is the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, which is using time-
lapse photography to reveal how glaciers and sea ice are fluctuating.

The images are amazing, but the implications for the future of the
planet are disturbing. You can see some of the images next Tuesday on
public television, on a “NOVA”-National Geographic special called
“Extreme Ice.” Balog has also written a companion book called “Extreme
Ice Now.”

James Balog, welcome to FRESH AIR. The Extreme Ice Project is so
extraordinary, both in terms of what it’s scientifically documenting,
but also in terms of what you’re bringing back visually. So why don’t
you start by just giving us an overview of the project and where you
have cameras positioned?

Mr. JAMES BALOG (Founder, Extreme Ice Survey): Yeah, we have 26 time-
lapse cameras positioned at glaciers all across the Northern Hemisphere,
and these cameras are out there in these ridiculously hostile
environments, photographing every hour.

They’re on automated little custom-made computer systems, and they shoot
every hour around the clock, as long as it’s daylight.

They’ve already been out for two years. They’ll be out for another two
to four more years. We actually had originally planned that it would a
three-year project, but the results we’re getting are so spectacular
that everybody in science worlds and media-communications world wants us
to keep them out there.

The cameras are at glaciers in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, British
Columbia, Montana, and we’re also doing some repeat photography in the
Alps and in South America.

So the time-lapse cameras shoot every hour, as long as it’s daylight.
And then we wind up with many thousands of pictures from each one of
these cameras, and we put them together in these video clips that
animate the life of these glaciers so that you can really see what’s
happening and get a sense of geologic-scale change coming alive right in
front of your eyes.

GROSS: Yeah, so what are some of the things this time-lapse photography
is enabling you to see that humans otherwise wouldn’t be able to

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, what’s really stunning about this for me as a
mountaineer, for me as somebody who’s trained in natural sciences and
for me as a photographer is that we’re seeing the invisible come alive.

You tend to think in terms of geologic-scale change or monumental change
on the earth as being something that happens a long time ago or will
happen a long time in the future, and yet in these cameras, we’re seeing
these monumental changes happening right now.

It makes it very immediate, very present, very alive. You know, I feel
like I’m witnessing something that no human should normally have a
chance to witness, but yet these cameras are seeing it.

GROSS: And what you’re witnessing, in part, is icebergs breaking away
from glaciers, glaciers receding and, in some cases, almost

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. We’re right in the middle of an historic period of
geologic change, and we’re seeing these things vanishing right in front
of our eyes.

This glacier we were just at in Iceland the other day, it’s astounding
how it’s changed just in the past six months, let alone in the past two
years, four years, six years. And these cameras are capturing things
that otherwise would go unnoticed.

You know, I’m always reminded of that old saying about if a tree falls
in the forest and no one’s there to hear the sounds, you know, did it
ever really happen?

Well, if a glacier vanishes in the Arctic and no camera is there to
witness it, would anyone ever know if it ever was there or if this event
really happened? Well, we’re bearing witness to the fact that it is
happening, and we’ve got the evidence.

GROSS: So you’ve witnessed the largest iceberg breaking off of a glacier
that we know of, you know, that anyone’s ever witnessed.

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. We had a team out at a huge glacier in Greenland in
May, and this glacier is called the Ilulissat glacier. This one glacier
puts more icebergs into the global ocean than all the other glaciers in
the Northern Hemisphere put together.

And my team, Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski, camped out there for 10
days. And we had nine cameras running around the clock, watching this
glacier as it was changing.

And all of a sudden, on the evening of May 28th, we put on film the
biggest break-off event - or it’s actually known as a calving event. We
witnessed the biggest break-up event that’s ever been put on film. And
it’s - the imagery is really, really spectacular.

GROSS: Would you describe what it looks like?

Mr. BALOG: As the glacier breaks off, you’re seeing these blocks of ice
that are more than half a mile high breaking off from the face of the
glacier, rolling up out of the ocean and essentially exploding in front
of your eyes.

And this happens minute after minute. And on the evening of May 28th, my
Extreme Ice Survey team was camped out at this huge glacier in
Greenland. It’s called the Ilulissat glacier. Now, this glacier puts
more ice into the global ocean than all the other glaciers in the
Northern Hemisphere put together.

And all of a sudden, over the course of 75 minutes, my team, Adam and
Jeff, saw these monumental icebergs, icebergs the size of El Capitan in
Yosemite - that huge cliff face you see on the left as you drive into
Yosemite Valley - icebergs that size were breaking off the terminus of
this glacier and rolling over and basically exploding in front of the
cameras. We had nine cameras going simultaneously, time-lapse cameras,
as well as video cameras, and they caught this whole thing, this huge
churning and cascading of icebergs as this glacier broke off.

In all, by the time the whole thing was done, the glacier had broken off
across a calving face three miles wide, and it broke off a piece that
was about half a mile deep, left to right, across the surface of the
ocean. It was really a huge thing. And nobody’s ever witnessed anything

like that on cameras before, and we caught it.

GROSS: So is this normal, you know, these huge icebergs breaking away
from the glacier?

Mr. BALOG: Well, you know, ever since glaciers have gone into seawater,
icebergs have always broken off. It’s just in the nature of these
things. But what’s unusual about our time is that the events that we’re
witnessing are in the context of a tremendous retreat or deflation of
the Greenland Ice Sheet, as well as many other glaciers around the

Basically, 90 or 95 percent of the glaciers around the world, outside
Antarctica, are retreating right now. There’s very few that are static
or advancing. Almost everything is retreating.

So what we’re looking at is a snapshot of this overwhelming event of ice
retreating, and it’s not retreating for abstract reasons. It’s
retreating because the climates are changing around the world, in Asia,
in Europe, in North America, in Africa and South America. Everything is
changing right now.

We’re getting precipitation patterns that are changing, and we’re
getting, of course, temperature warming everywhere.

GROSS: And when you say that the glaciers are retreating, you mean

Mr. BALOG: Shrinking, yes. They’re retreating in the sense of at the
terminuses, at the ends of the glaciers, they’re retreating. At the same
time, they’re actually getting thinner, and that’s what we call
deflation. And, in a sense, the deflation is where the majority of the
volume of these glaciers is lost. It’s not necessarily out there at the
terminus, but this thinning of the mass of the glacier is where most of
it disappears.

And this deflation, the retreat, it’s happening almost everywhere.

GROSS: My guest is James Balog. He’s the founder of the Extreme Ice
Survey, which is documenting, through time-lapse photography, what’s
happening to glaciers around the world.

There’s a new “NOVA” documentary based on this work that will be shown
next Tuesday. There’s also a new book that Balog wrote, called “Extreme
Ice Now.”

Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is James Balog, and he’s the
founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. This is a project in which he’s put
time-lapse cameras on glaciers around the world, and he’s documenting
what’s happening to the glaciers.

There’s a new “NOVA” documentary about the work he’s been doing. That
will be shown next Tuesday, and Balog also has a new book called
“Extreme Ice Now.”

One of the things you’ve been documenting is what happens to the melting
water. And there’s – in the “NOVA” documentary, there’s an incredible
shot where there’s like a hole that melting water has been falling into,
like an ice hole. And you, with the help of ropes, lower yourself into
the hole so that you can photograph what it looks like inside there.

Can you describe what you saw and how it felt to be in this huge ice

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, the scene you’re referring to was on the Greenland Ice
Sheet. We were about 50 miles in from the edge of the ice. And what
happens is that the - as the sheet is melting, it creates rivers on top
of the ice. And the rivers go along until they find a crevice in the
ice, and then they drill their way down through 3,000 vertical feet of
ice to the bottom of the ice sheet, and the water flows out to sea
unseen, down in the dark, underneath the ice sheet.

Well, up where that hole opens up on the surface, that’s called a
moulin, which is a French word for windmill, because the idea is that
the water is scouring its way down, you know, swirling down the way a
windmill would in drilling a hole into the ice.

And these are spectacular scenes, you know, spectacular sites. And so I,
as a photographer, naturally, want to get down inside there and see what
that looks like and try and make a picture of it.

So as you go down inside these things, you’re surrounded by this world
of blue, and you’re surrounded by a character of blue that you don’t see
anywhere else on the surface of this planet.

I mean, I’ve seen a lot of blue in the course of being a traveling
nature and adventure photographer for 30 years, but I’ve never seen a
glowing, radiant deep blue the way it is when you’re inside the ice

So it’s really spectacular. It’s eerie. It’s scary down there because,
you know, the world is dropping away into the, you know, the unknown
void down below you. You’re also worried about whether or not maybe one
of the stream channels will rearrange itself up on the surface and
suddenly, you wind up with a river of 33-degree meltwater crashing down
over your head before you can get out of the hole.

So it’s a pretty high-intensity place, but it’s incredibly beautiful and
incredibly exciting. And I feel honored and privileged to have had the
chance to bring back some of the very, very few pictures that have ever
been shot down in these places.

GROSS: What explains the shade of blue that you saw?

Mr. BALOG: Well, the sunlight comes down through the ice sheet, and the
ice absorbs all the colors of the rainbow, except for this one, very
particular, exquisite, elegant shade of blue. It doesn’t give any other
color back except that blue.

So you’re actually seeing the ice sheet, in effect, creating its own
palette. It’s like it’s created its own painting, and it’s a wonderful
thing to witness.

GROSS: So when you have the water drilling down into the ice, is that
going to create more opportunities for ice to break away from the
glacier and become an iceberg?

Mr. BALOG: Well, this is a huge question in modern science right now,
and I have many good friends in the science community who are engaged in
trying to understand these physical systems because there’s a lot of
unknowns in that part of it.

What certainly is happening is that a huge amount of heat is getting
transferred from the sun into the meltwater, and then the meltwater
carries the heat down into the ice sheet. And there’s very strong
evidence that it’s changing the inherent internal dynamics of the ice
sheet by having all this extra heat introduced into the honeycomb of
passages and caverns and rivers that get burned down through the ice.

There’s also very clear evidence that the water running on the bed of
the ice helps to lubricate it, and it changes the degree to which it
flows out to sea.

But there’s another huge issue, really huge issue, and that is the
interaction of seawater with the termini of these big glaciers as
they’re coming out into the ocean.

The warmer the seawater is, the less pack ice, the less frozen sea
surface there is to hold the flowing glaciers in place. And as the
winters have been getting warmer - it’s much warmer in Greenland now
than it was 20, 25 years ago. As the winters get warmer, you have less
sea ice holding back those glaciers that are trying to flow out.

So you wind up with considerably more ice flowing out these valleys and
dumping into the ocean. We’re – basically, year after year, we’re seeing
record outflow from the Greenland ice sheet, and that’s a consequence
primarily of warming air temperatures, as well as warming seawater. This
is a big moment right now.

GROSS: So it sounds like it’s really quite a cycle. Things warm a little
bit, ice begins to melt, icebergs break away. You have these streams of
water drilling down into the ice that creates even more warming of the
ice. So once the ball gets rolling, it’s self-perpetuating, and the
process becomes more rapid.

Mr. BALOG: Absolutely. I mean, that’s been the thing that, for me, has
been particularly astounding. I mean, certainly, I’m aware of, you know,
ideas of natural systems being interconnected. But boy, the more you get
into the science, the more you realize how all of this stuff fits

The atmosphere fits together with the precipitation coming out of it.
That fits together with the ice sheet. That fits together with the way
the glaciers flow, and then the ocean is tied together with all of this.
It truly is one big system.

It’s – strangely enough, it’s like, you know, what you learned when you
were nine years old in science class, those little diagrams that the
teacher put on the wall about the hydrosphere, you know, and the rain
coming down and how the rain loops back around through the system from
the ocean.

Well, that’s really what I’m seeing in real time and space in looking at
this process. And it’s given me a very profound sense, more than I ever
had - and I’ve been around this kind of stuff for many decades now. But
it’s giving me a profound sense of how interconnected it all is, and
ultimately, of course, how we as humans are connected to it and what it
means for us.

GROSS: And how fragile it is, I think it’s giving you a sense of, too.

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, you know, one of the huge misconceptions the human race
has, or has had for a long time, is that the earth is this big,
unchanging system and that we can do basically whatever we want.

You know, we can be indifferent to it. It’s a static theater on which
the human race operates. And one of the big sort of bits of
intellectual, psychological, philosophical evolution we’re going through
and have been going through for some decades - but we’re going through
it very intensely again right now - is to recognize that we are players
in this.

In fact, there’s a new branch of science that is suggesting that we are
the dominant agent of change on this earth now. It’s no longer nature.
It’s the impacts we as a species bring to nature. It’s us.

GROSS: One of the things that the “NOVA” documentary shows is meltwater
lakes. And before we describe your experiences with meltwater lakes,
just describe what a meltwater lake is.

Mr. BALOG: What happens out in Greenland is that the sun warms up the
surface of the ice, this meltwater percolates all over the ice sheet,
and it eventually consolidates in these lakes.

And then the lakes sort of decant, you know, as if somebody just tipped
a bottle over, and all of a sudden, you have these rivers running out
across the surface of the ice.

And the rivers run until they find a crevice, and they drop down through
a crevice and flow out to the bottom of the ice sheet and flow out to

The lakes are these unbelievably beautiful sapphire jewels, and there’s
thousands of them out there. There’s not a couple here and there.
There’s thousands of these lakes, thousands of rivers. And in some
cases, these rivers form these huge slot canyons.

So it winds up looking like the canyonlands out in the Utah desert. You
know how you have those beautiful orange and red rocks with those muddy
rivers carving through the orange and red rocks?

Well, imagine instead of orange and red, it’s white from the ice, and
down in the bottom of those canyons, you have sapphire-blue water
instead of muddy water. So you have this amazing landscape of like this
huge wedding cake being cut by these ribbons of sapphire water. It’s
really fabulous.

GROSS: And what’s maybe even more remarkable is that some of these lakes
vanish overnight, and you kind of witnessed that. Would you describe
what happens to the lake when it vanishes?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. You know, you’ll have a big
lake there, sometimes a couple miles across, and all of a sudden, the
ice sheet will fracture. You’ll just have essentially an earthquake,
which we’ve come to call ice quakes.

You have an ice quake that splits through the ice. A huge rift opens up
underneath the lake, and fump, the water pours down through these
crevices to the bottom of the ice sheet.

My friend Ian Joughin, who’s a scientist who studied this quite a bit,
calculated on the tapping out of one of these lakes. We call it tapping
out. The lake taps out.

He calculated that the flow of the water pouring down one of these
crevices was equivalent to the flow of Niagara Falls for about two
hours, and it’s this huge, sucking action as it’s roaring down to the
bottom of the ice sheet.

GROSS: So it’s like noisy and violent?

Mr. BALOG: Well, you hear this great rumble. And when you’re standing
out there, you can feel the ice sheet jumping up and down. It’s like a
waterbed. You know, the ice is elastic. It’s not even like a rock. You
know, it’s elastic and springy, and these ice quakes happen very
suddenly, very rapidly and move huge masses of ice underneath your feet.

So it feels like this gigantic waterbed sometimes. You know, you get
this very deep, low-frequency whoomph that goes through your world. You
can kind of feel it in your bone marrow. You almost don’t hear it, but
you feel it, and you can feel the ice gyrating a little bit underneath
your feet. And it’s eerie.

It makes you realize how small you are. You’re just this little ant up
on the surface of this huge elephant underneath you, and it’s going to
do whatever it needs to, quite independent of you up there. And it could
throw you around quite easily if it chose to.

GROSS: James Balog will be back in the second half of the show. He’s the
founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. You can see his work next Tuesday on
a “NOVA”-National Geographic special called “Extreme Ice.” He’s also
written a companion book called “Extreme Ice Now.” And you can see a
slideshow of his images and one of his time-lapse videos on our Web
site: This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with James Balog, who’s
documenting the receding glaciers and melting ice sheets through his
project the Extreme Ice Survey. His time-lapse cameras are documenting
changes in the ice that humans have never witnessed before. The images
are visually spectacular, but also disturbing because the melting ice is
a symptom of climate change. Balog’s work is the subject of “NOVA”-
National Geographic special that will be shown Tuesday on PBS. Balog has
a companion book called “Extreme Ice Now.” When we left off, we were
talking about huge lakes on the ice sheets created by glacial meltwater.
There’s a sequence in the NOVA documentary in which you are lying on the
edge of the hole that one of these meltwater lakes is draining into, and
it’s a remarkable image. Tell us what it was like to be on the edge of
that hole watching the water go in.

Mr. BALOG: Well, yeah, that was pretty creepy because this hole was
about 20 feet in diameter, okay. It just this circle drilled down into
the ice, 20 feet in diameter, going straight down for something like 30
stories. You know, I was looking off the edge of the skyscraper,
essentially, straight down 30 stories. And there were still some
waterfalls pouring down off the side. But what was really weird about it
is just the matter of a couple of hours before I was laying on the edge
of this hole, there had been a lake 30 or 40 feet deep over my head. And
that whole lake had gone pouring down through the hole.

And we woke up one morning and noticed that the lake was disappearing.
So we scrambled, we hurried around the camp about a mile away from this
lake and put on our climbing gear and went racing down there so that we
could watch the edge of the water as it was retreating in. Well, it
drained so fast, the water in the bed of the lake was basically gone by
the time we got there. So I, being nut-job photographer…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALOG: …I certainly, I had to stick my head over the edge of that
hole to get a picture looking down. Well, because we had been so hasty,
I hadn’t brought all my proper technical climbing gear down to the edge.
So I was not anchored when I crawled up to the edge of the hole. Now
that ice was the slickest ice that I have ever experienced in my life.
You could almost not stand up on this stuff. Right after the water
drained, it was like glass covered with grease. So as you’re going up to
those rounded edge of this hole, you’re terrified that you are about to
go slipping off.

And so I had laid down and wiggled on my stomach up to the edge of the
hole and I reached out with my arms and suspended the camera over the
hole from my arms so that I didn’t have my head quite so far over. You
know, all of that was fine. It felt, you know, intimidating but
reasonable. Yet the thing its always in the back of your mind is we
don’t know if another ice quake is about to happen, and if the right
kind of an ice quake happens, it’s just going to flip me right off the
edge of this - the precipice here and throw me down inside that cavern.

We saw, just a quarter mile away from that spot, we saw a place where an
ice quake had displaced the ice 20 feet vertically. There had been an
ice quake that shot this block of ice 20 feet up in the air, apparently
instantaneously. And so it’s always in your mind: My God, if something
like that happens, I’m dead. You know, I’m over the edge. It’s all over.
It was a very high intensity moment, to say the least.

GROSS: Did you get a great shot?

Mr. BALOG: Oh, it was unbelievable. It was incredibly beautiful. It was
one of the best shots that I’ve had in four years of working on these
glaciers. It was just insanely beautiful. Everybody who sees it - it’s
actually not in the book. It’ll be in the next book. And you’re just
looking down into this seemingly endless void of blue, and it’s this
radiant aqua marine. And there’s a waterfall pouring down one side, and
the waterfall goes down and then it disappears into the blackness down
in the bottom.

And its - when you look into it, you feel like you are looking into
another galaxy, you know? It reminds me the most of those shots of the,
you know, the Hubble Space Telescope has shot looking off into the Crab
Nebula or something out far, far, far away from us. And yet we’re
looking down into the heart of the earth. And it’s - you’re seeing
something that human eyes have never seen before.

GROSS: So you’re lying on the edge of this hole, water is pouring down.
It’s a 30-story drop. You’re on incredibly slippery ice. You’re afraid
to really stick your head over the hole, so your arms are holding the
camera over the hole. You take your photograph. How do you get up

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALOG: Very, very, very carefully. You don’t just kind of pull your
knees up under you and put your hands up under you and stand up because
it - you really are right, - I was truly on the edge of being able to
balance on this thing. You know, like five percent either way, and I
would’ve lost my balance and been gone. So when it was time to finish
the shot, I had to just wriggle very carefully back away from the hole
until I got into some more level ice and I could push myself up into a,
you know, a crawling position and eventually stand up and retreat from
the edge. It was most exciting.

GROSS: I imagine you’ve thought about this. Say, God forbid, that you
slipped into this hole and fell 30 stories into oblivion in a landscape
that no one’s really ever witnessed before, and there’d be no way of
getting you out of there. Have you thought what - I hate to bring this
up - but what kind of death that would be?

Mr. BALOG: Well, it would be absolutely hideous. There’s no question. I
mean, certainly, I think about it. I’ve thought about it quite a lot as
I was laying there on the edge. It was like this, you know, I’m trying
to do my job as a photographer, but there’s this other part of your mind
is sitting there going, don’t screw up. Keep focus. Stay safe. Keep your
balance. Don’t make any false moves. Pay attention.

It’s always like this voice going, pay attention, pay attention, pay
attention, pay attention all the time because, you know, you’re very
aware of the fact that it would be a hideous death going down in that
hole. And if you managed to survive the fall, there is absolutely no
chance of ever getting out of there, and we didn’t have ropes that would
have been long enough to reach me. But in any case, you know, the fall
would kill you for sure. And you’re going down into this fathomless
abyss. I mean, it really is like “Journey to the Center of the Earth”
down there.

And nobody’s ever been down there, and nobody would ever go down there
and could never get you out. So it’s not a place to make any mistakes.

GROSS: So you took this extraordinary risk and got an extraordinary
photo out of it that everyone says it remarkable to see. What does it
tell scientists?

Mr. BALOG: I don’t know that the photo tells much in a quantitative
sense, but it brings home a visual reality of what’s down there.
Nobody’s seen a sight like that before. But to me, the story is not in
the science. To me, the story is in the art and lyricism of it. It
brings to the human eye and the human mind and the human heart a sense
of grandeur and majesty and exploration and novelty that people don’t
expect to have from something as abstract and distant as the Greenland
ice sheet.

But there is this world there, this world to celebrate, this world to
look at, to enjoy and to appreciate. And that’s really, I think, what
the picture does the best.

GROSS: I think this is maybe the opportunity for me to ask you if you
are a religious man at all, and if this experience has affected your
sense of spirituality one way or another. I’m not implying here that you
should be religious or that it should have increased your sense of that.
I’m just kind of curious.

Mr. BALOG: You know, I have a very, very broad sense of spirituality.
I’m not a practicing member of any religion, but I have a very deep
sense that there - I suppose that would have to say that there is some
sort of a force - a God force, if you want to call it that - that unites
this incredible earth experience and the people who live on it, unites
us to the galaxy that’s out there over our heads all the time. And in
that sense, it is religious. But I think if it is spiritual rather then
explicitly religious.

To me, religious means that one is a subscriber to certain theological
beliefs attached to a particular church. And I’m not that. But
definitely, I have a spiritual sense about all of this.

GROSS: My guest is James Balog. He’s using time-lapse photography to
document receding glaciers and melting ice sheets through his project
the Extreme Ice Survey. It’s the subject to Tuesday’s “NOVA”-National
Geographic special on PBS. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is James Balog, and he’s the
founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. This is a project in which he’s put
time-lapse cameras on glaciers around the world and he’s documenting
what’s happening to the glaciers. And what’s happening to a lot of them
is they’re receding. They’re shrinking.

There’s a new NOVA documentary about the work he’s been doing. That will
be shown next Tuesday. And Balog also has a new book called “Extreme Ice
Now.” Is there a point at which a glacier dies, and has your time-lapse
photography documented that moment in any glacier’s life?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. There’s a place in Iceland, actually, that we’ve come
to call the place where glaciers go to die. It’s this incredibly
beautiful lagoon called Jokulsarlon out in eastern Iceland. And this
huge ice sheet pours off the highest mountain in Iceland and comes down
into this gigantic tidewater lake. And the ice breaks off into the lake.
The icebergs flow across the lake for a few miles. And then they go down
this river out into the surf, and the surf heats them up, and those
icebergs get turned into global sea level rise.

And this beach by the surf is really eerie, because on each high tide,
these blocks of ice get washed up and deposited there. And so you’re
seeing these fragments of ice that was formed 1,000 years ago. And these
icebergs get pushed up onto the beaches, and they sit there. As the, you
know, the high tide pushes them up, they’re deposited, tide goes out and
they sit there until the tide’s ready to come back again 12 hours later.

Well, when you walk down this beach, there’s these incredible diamonds
glittering there in the moonlight or the starlight or the sunlight. It’s
a fantastic place. And in these diamonds, you’re witnessing history
disappearing right in front of your eyes.

GROSS: These are ice diamonds you’re talking about?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, yeah. Ice diamonds. And these are essentially artifacts
of a time 800 or 900 or 1,000 years ago when the snow storms came and
created this ice. And inside that ice you’re seeing ancient water and
you’re seeing ancient air molecules. And it’s sitting there, embodied in
these ice diamonds. And so I’ve been going along, making a portfolio
celebrating the beauty of these unique, very short-lived natural
sculptors because right after I shoot them, the high tide comes back
again, takes them out to sea and melts them for good and they become
part of global sea level rise.

It’s a fantastic place to witness time. You know, you really feel
mortality coming and going right in front of you. And you really feel
geologic process alive. And you also, that’s been the real revelation
for me, you feel this beauty in the natural sculpture that the
confluence of ice and surf and air has created. It sculpts out these
unique diamonds, these unique shapes – really beautiful shapes. Each one
of them, absolutely unique. And they’re just very short term, though,
and they go away when the tide comes up again.

GROSS: So, you know, in documenting glaciers and the receding of
glaciers, you’re also documenting the disappearance of glaciers. And you
have some photographs in your time-lapse photography, or maybe it’s in
your still photography, where you see a spot where a glacier used to be
and isn’t anymore. Would you describe what one of those spots looks

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, where the glaciers recede, it’s raw - it’s just raw
dirt and rock that’s basically, you know, a natural organic brown,
essentially. Because normally a mountain side or valley in these Alpine
and Arctic areas, there’s a lot of rock around, right? But that rock is
normally covered with lichen or moss, and lichen or moss turn it various
shades of gray or green. When the glaciers have just been there and
they’ve retreated, the lichen and moss have not had a chance to grow. So
you’re looking at just these raw, tan rocks.

And as you look up these valleys, you can see what’s called the trim
line, between – up high, you might see this very dark grey or greenish
rock where the plants have had a chance to grow. And down below it, it’s
much pinker and lighter and more tan, because nothing has had a chance
to grow yet. And I’ve been really struck at the sense of seeing time,
you know, you’re witnessing something evolving in front of your eyes.
It’s as if, you know, after Mount St. Helens erupted some years ago, you
know, and the volcanic ash blankets the landscape. And suddenly, you
have a brand new, fresh landscape. Nothing’s alive on it. And the
potential of the future is all potential. You know, it’s just waiting.
Well, that’s what it’s like here. And, you know, somebody will go back
to the valleys that I visited 50 years or 100 years or 500 years from
now and they might see a forest there. They’ll see a whole ecosystem, a
whole civilization of plants and animals that isn’t there now. But we
were there at the birth.

GROSS: So, you know, you’ve described some really spectacular things
that you’ve witnessed in documenting the retreat of glaciers, the
shrinking of glaciers. Let’s talk a little bit about what that means for
the planet, for the future of people who live on the planet. First of
all, you’ve been working with a lot of scientists. What are scientists
predicting about the future of the ice in the North and South Pole? What
are their concerns about how quickly it might be melting?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah. You know, these retreating glaciers are the most
visible, tangible evidence of climate change on the planet today.
Nothing shows it as well as vanishing ice does. This is not about
computer models. It’s not about statistical projections. This is the
real living proof of climate change happening right now. And everybody
who has been out in the field, everybody who knows this science in a
deep and serious way understands that climate change is real and it’s
present. It’s right now. It’s happening right now, and it’s also
happening a lot faster. And the trends are accelerating more intensely
than anybody would’ve predicted five or 10 years ago. That’s the big
story here.

I just came back from a big meeting of climate specialists in
Copenhagen, a meeting called the Climate Congress that happened last
week. And over and over and over again, whether you were talking about
ice or atmosphere or ocean or terrestrial ecology and biology, everybody
was saying it’s happening faster. It’s astounding everybody. And the
overwhelming message is that the rate of change is accelerating and that
there’s - the tipping points are either happening right now or they’re
going to happen in the very near future. You know, we’re in a really
critical, decisive moment of human history as well as natural history,
and we need to wake up and pay attention.

GROSS: And what are some of the biggest changes that will happen as the
glaciers melt?

Mr. BALOG: The melting of the glaciers will bring specific changes,
particularly global sea level rise. They will also diminish water
supplies. As they go away, these downstream civilizations that depend on
the water supplies will be troubled. Already in the Pacific Northwest of
the United States, the end of winter snow packs are down 50 percent in
the past 50 years. And cities like Seattle and Portland depend on the
runoff from those glaciers and those snowfields. There’s going to be
less water in the Pacific Northwest for agriculture and drinking in the
very near future as there already is right now. It’s going to keep

But much more importantly, in a geopolitical sense, the civilizations of
South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia - in other words China, India,
particularly - depends on water that’s been stored in the Himalaya and
up on the Tibetan plateau. In most of those areas, the glaciers are
receding and there’s less water being stored. You’ve got two billion
people downstream from those glaciers that need that water supply to be
stored there and then flowed out in a modulated fashion over time.

There is going to be widespread disruption when those guys don’t have
enough agricultural water and drinking water because the glaciers in the
Himalaya disappear. That’s a really, really, really big deal. Same issue
applies east and west of the Andes. Melting glaciers are going to impact
water supply all around the world and they’re also going to impact
rising sea level. The current science is saying very clearly that we’re
looking at approximately a three foot sea level rise over the next 90
years or 100 years - three foot sea level rise.

That has huge impacts on the communities like Miami that are down at sea
level. It has huge impacts on beachfront properties. If you look at any
of these maps of what a foot or two or three of sea level rise means up
and down the East Coast of the United States, it’s a lot. It’s big, big
flooding impacts. It gives hurricanes the opportunity to have a great
deal more impact on seaside communities. The glaciers are - really
should be looked at as essentially a canary in the coal mine here.
They’re a warning signal that there’s problems. And the problems apply
to earth, air, fire, water and people.

GROSS: My guest is nature photographer James Balog, founder of the
Extreme Ice Survey. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Balog. He’s using time-lapse photography and
still photos to document receding glaciers and melting ice sheets
through his project the Extreme Ice Survey. It’s a subject of Tuesday’s
“NOVA”-National Geographic special on PBS. When we left off, he was
explaining that the melting glacial ice could create devastating changes
on the planet. So I’m wondering, when you’re on the glaciers and you’re
observing how beautiful they are and how – even how beautiful the meting
of them is, at the same time you know that this is a sign of something
really dangerous, possibly catastrophic, happening to the planet. Can
you keep both of those thoughts in your head at the same time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALOG: Yeah it’s really schizophrenic. You’ve put your finger on
something very profound here. You know, my job when I go out there is to
celebrate the places and try and create something that’s visually
provocative and gives you something you haven’t seen before and gets you
excited because you haven’t seen it before. But then all the time
hanging over you is this feeling of, my God, everything I’m seeing is

This is a very mortal landscape, and it can be crushing sometimes when
you really realize what you’re looking at. And it can overwhelmingly sad
and depressing. And then I kind of pull myself up by the scruff of the
neck mentally and say, huh. You don’t have the opportunity to be
depressed and sad about this. You’ve got a job to do. You have a story
to tell, and it’s been your to privilege to be able to speak for these

GROSS: Well, the work that you’re doing is extraordinary. And even just
the fact that you can have cameras in these extreme climates on the ice
doing time-lapse work over a period of years - just give us a sense of
where you placed the cameras and what kind of care they get as they’re
recording once an hour, every hour during daylight over a period of two
to four years.

Mr. BALOG: You know, these cameras are anchored to cliff faces up above
these glaciers. And they’re looking down on the glaciers, typically. And
we have this elaborate system of aluminum brackets and steel cable and
bolts that anchor them to the rock. And they have to shoot every hour,
you know, so you need a power supply for that. We have solar panels and
we have batteries that are charged by the solar panels, and that’s what
keeps the cameras alive. But the real crux of this is this ridiculous
weather that they’re exposed to. We’ve got cameras in places where the
winds are routinely over 100 miles an hour. One of our camera sites in
Montana is known to have endured winds that were 160 miles an hour.

The temperatures in some of these locations are down in the realm of 40
below zero, and continuously 25 to 30 below zero. So the equipment has
to be able to endure that. So, you know, it’s getting hammered, just
pounded all the time - and not to mention the fact that there’s snow and
ice and ultraviolet rays, and in the summer time a lot of rain,
particularly in Iceland and Alaska. These cameras have to survive a lot.
We’ve got these fabulous Nikon cameras inside the housings, and these
things have been spectacularly reliable. I frankly didn’t think that
anything could survive these conditions so continuously, but they have.

GROSS: You just got back from the Arctic, and one of the things that you
did was check on your cameras there. So how were they doing?

Mr. BALOG: Yeah, we just looked in on four cameras that are in Iceland,
in these savage places, and the cameras are doing just great. They just
keep, you know, firing away. It amazes me. I have these little
surrogates for myself out there, like my little robots, my little
children - child robots. And it’s a warm feeling to go back to some
remote place and realize that your little surrogate has been out there,
clicking away, watching the landscape for you and that it’s still alive
and still happy and still doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

GROSS: What’s the most exciting image that you just took back from the

Mr. BALOG: The most exciting picture we just got was at the terminus of
this one glacier in Iceland. At the same time, part of the glacier was
going away, this huge block of ice just came levitating up from
underneath the soil. And it was as if - you know, those pictures of the
nuclear submarines popping up through the surface of the Arctic Ocean?
That’s what this was like. This thing just kind of levitated up out of
the earth because the stream erosion has taken the overburden of the ice
away from on top of it, and all of a sudden the pressure was released
and this thing came up. And now that, of course, is melting away, too.
But you see this valley alive. You see the glacier alive. You see the
ice alive, and that has blows me away. Every time I open up these
cameras and look at the pictures, I’m amazed to see how alive the ice
is, how alive the rivers are, how alive the evolution this landscape is.
This is not abstract. It’s not a theory. It’s observable, and these
cameras are seeing it.

GROSS: Well, James Balog, you’re during extraordinary work. Thanks for
sharing you descriptions of it with us. I really appreciate it. Thank

Mr. BALOG: Well, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: James Balog is the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. His work as
featured in the “NOVA”-National Geographic special that will be showing
Tuesday on PBS. His companion book is called “Extreme Ice Now.” NPR’s
daily photo blog, the Picture Show, has put together a slide show of
Balog’s work, including except of the special. You can find it on our
Web site:

I’m Terry Gross, and we’ll close with a song, a great song made famous
by Frank Sinatra: “All or Nothing at All.” The lyric was written by Jack
Lawrence, who died Sunday at the age of 96. Here’s Sinatra’s 1939
version with Harry James and his orchestra.

(Soundbite of song, “All or Nothing at All)

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) All or nothing at all. Half a
love, never appealed to me. If your heart, never could yield to me, then
I’d rather have nothing at all.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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