Bill Moyers
October 11, 2012 | Updated October 2, 2014
James Balog on Capturing our Disappearing Glaciers

BILL MOYERS: Climate change is real and even though there’s little talk about it coming from the presidential candidates, most people agree. A new survey from Yale and George Mason University finds that a great majority of us, 74 percent of those polled, believe “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”

But it’s impossible to truly grasp this reality unless you can see it with your own eyes. That’s the beauty of what my guest James Balog is doing. Earth, he says, is having a fever. So five years ago, he created the Extreme Ice Survey, combining art and science to tell the story of a planet in peril. Risking life and limb, this photographer and filmmaker, mountaineer, author and prophet has gone to the top of the world to show us overwhelming evidence of what we’re doing to the environment.

His discoveries are in this magnificent new book, “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” — and in the feature length documentary Chasing Ice, soon to be released.

Here’s an excerpt from its trailer.

JAMES BALOG in Chasing Ice trailer: It all started in Iceland.

I think I’m so certain to get wet I’ll take my boots off.

I never imagined that you could see glaciers this big disappearing in such a short time. There’s a powerful piece of history that’s unfolding in these pictures, and I have to go back. The initial goal was to put out 25 cameras for three years, shoot every hour as long as it was daylight. That would show you how the landscape is changing.

Oh, this is the way to travel, my friend.

MALE VOICE in Chasing Ice trailer: We’re putting really delicate electronics in the harshest conditions on the planet. It’s not the nicest environment for technology.

MALE VOICE in Chasing Ice trailer: I do not want to go any lower than this. It’s just bottomless.

JAMES BALOG in Chasing Ice trailer: I’m going out here on this broken fin and I assume it won’t collapse.

JAMES BALOG in Chasing Ice trailer: This is big stuff happening right now.

Okay, onward. This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone, it may never be seen again in the history of civilization and it’s stored right here.

BILL MOYERS: James Balog has come here from Iceland and Alaska with some urgency because what he has to tell us, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney simply refuse to talk about. Welcome, James Balog.

JAMES BALOG: I’m glad to be here, thank you.

BILL MOYERS: I've read the science on climate change. And then I read your book and saw your film and suddenly I more than get it. It gets me. Does that make sense to you?

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, it does. And that's the same reaction we've heard from many, many, many people across all parts of the philosophical and political spectrum. It really is this convergence of art and science that I think really hits people. And yeah, to be honest with you, having learned about these kind of sciences back when I was in my 20s, I tried to forget about the sciences for many decades.

And I went off and saw the world as a visual artist. And then in this project I came back and really infused the science back into my thinking about, thinking and feeling about the world as an artist. And it turned out that this combination of art and science together has been a really powerful thing that's really animated people and animated their understanding of this. The art is speaking from one half of your brain and the science is speaking from the other half.

BILL MOYERS: So let me play for you some footage you shared with us of glaciers, and then I have a question about it. Watch this.

JAMES BALOG IN FILM: In 1984 the glacier was down there, 11 miles away. And today, it’s back here. It receded 11 miles. The glacier retreating, but it’s also thinning at the same time. It’s like air being let out of a balloon. You can see what’s called the trim line; it’s the high water-mark of the glacier in 1984. That vertical change is the height of the Empire State Building.

JAMES BALOG: We're at Columbia Glacier in Alaska, in south central Alaska right along the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean. And when you, when you look at those things your brain goes, "Is this possible? Can I actually be seeing something this epic in front of my eyes?"

And you go, "Okay, I see that trim line, I see the deflation, I see that there was-- Tad Pfeffer, my scientist friend, who's been up there forever says, "Yeah, the glacier was down there once upon a time and now it's back here." And you still can't quite grasp it in your heart about how monumental that is.

And then you put the camera up on the mountaintop, you bolt it to the bedrock and you let it sit there. And it's your little surrogate eyes. And those little robots, our little R2-D2, they're sitting out there clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking, watching the world change. And you go back a year later and you see what it saw and it's, like, unbelievable. It's phenomenal. And then you start to get it.

And every time we open up the back of one of those cameras after it's been out there for a year and nobody's touched it, it's a strange feeling almost like Christmas morning because you know you're going to see something that you passionately want to see and it's going to be this incredible revelation. It's like this magic happens when you open that box.

Now, I'm not saying it's a happy magic because this is sad that the ice is going away. It's sad in its own way. But it's also, as a photographer it's exciting and revelatory because you're in the middle of history. You're seeing something that the human mind would never normally get to see. The cameras are seeing it for you.

BILL MOYERS: So the first time you opened it a year later what did you see?

JAMES BALOG: We saw the ice had gone back a quarter mile. And then we opened it a year later and the ice had gone back another quarter mile. And that scene that's in that shot, almost all that ice is now gone as we sit here today. We just had somebody up there on that mountaintop just a month ago. And he re-photographed these scenes and there's practically nothing left.

BILL MOYERS: But haven't glaciers been shifting and shaping and forming and breaking up through the millennia? I mean, can you be sure you're not just photographing a snapshot of an ancient process that has been going on and will be going on?

JAMES BALOG: Look, I was originally something of a climate change skeptic. And I'd say that in spite of the fact that I was trained in these kinds of sciences.

To be clear glaciers have always advanced and receded. You know, that has happened over time. That's a natural part of the earth's cycle. But what is very well established from the science of the past several decades is that the rates of change that we're seeing right now are much greater than what they had been not very many years ago.

There's been a significant acceleration of glacial retreat over the past 30 or 40 years. And that seems to clearly be tied to changes in the atmosphere and the impact of carbon dioxide and methane and nitrous oxide on the composition of the atmosphere in this. It's all part of this cycle of changing weather patterns and changing ocean currents and temperatures that we're seeing in a lot of places in the world.

We can see that we're now in a really extremely anomalous, weird condition in terms of the earth's long term history.

BILL MOYERS: How so? Describe that to me.

JAMES BALOG: Well, the earth has always gone through these cycles of warming and cooling that are connected with the way we move around the sun, the way the earth orbits the sun and the way the axis of the earth tilts.

And that's what has brought on the great ice ages of the past. These processes are connected with a cycling of the composition of the earth's atmosphere, okay. And during the ice ages the earth's atmosphere goes down to about 180 parts per million of carbon dioxide.

I don't want to bore you with too many numbers here, but this is really important that people get this. A hundred and eighty parts per million is at the bottom of an ice age atmosphere. At 280 parts per million that's kind of the natural peak. So nature naturally cycles between 180 and 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We're now at 395.

We're moving towards a level of carbon dioxide concentration that hasn't been seen since tens of millions of years ago. And really the main period when the earth had that much of that gas in the atmosphere was back in the days of the dinosaurs when the composition of the atmosphere is really, really different and it alters the basic makeup of life on the planet, the plants and the animals and the conditions in which they live.

So people say, you know, why do we care about this warming that’s happened before? Well, guess what? People didn't live here when it was like that. The age of agriculture, the age of industrial civilization depends on us living within this relatively comfortable range of temperature and precipitation and atmosphere that we've been in for the past 10,000 years. We're pushing ourselves far outside our range of comfort right now. And that's the real danger.

BILL MOYERS: You said you were somewhat of a skeptic, you had a negative reaction to many of the reports coming out twenty years ago about global warming. What made you a skeptic and what converted you?

JAMES BALOG: Well the first thing I was skeptical about was that maybe this was just another hyped up activist cause, okay. The second thing that was much more profound was the fact that I had understood that the science was based on computer models.

Computer models were relatively sketchy on this. And computer models are only as good as the data you put into them. Now, the computer models of today are really, really good. There are still some blank spots in them, but for the most part they're way, way better today than they were 20 years ago.

But even more substantially, what made me a skeptic 30 years ago was that I didn't have it in my head that it was possible that our species, homo sapiens, was capable of so profoundly altering the basic physics and chemistry of the planet. I didn't think it was conceivable. And of course the revelation that we can alter the physics and chemistry so profoundly is something that has just emerged in the scientific community in the past ten or 15 years. And it's a really revolutionary idea.

BILL MOYERS: But something had to reveal itself to you in such a way that caused you to take on this Extreme Ice project. Because this is an amazing -- when people see the film I think they'll be as amazed as I was by the sheer logistics of what you did. Just describe for me what that project is all about.

JAMES BALOG: Well, you know, the thing that really set me off was that I spent some time to understand the record that was kept in the ice. And that's when I realized we weren't talking computer models. We're talking about the historic record, the knowledge that was in the ice. There's knowledge, there's not just time, there's knowledge embedded in the ice which is kind of amazing when you think about it.

You know, ice is just this blob of stuff there. Why do you care about ice? Well, it is truly the memory of the world. So then I realized, all right, I'm a photographer, I'm interested in these things and I have to tell a story about climate change somehow. So I spent about five years zigging and zagging, researching, reading, thinking about things, trying to figure out how I could visually manifest climate change in pictures.

And I kept coming back to the notion that the story had to be in the ice. That to my photographic way of thinking was the only place where I could actually see climate change happening.

BILL MOYERS: A small technical question. You leave this equipment up there in the coldest of weather, coldest of climate for years at a time. What kind of equipment is it? How do you know it's not going to be overwhelmed by the weather? And does it happen, the elements?

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, especially in the beginning of the project that was a huge uncertainty. You know, nobody had built equipment like this before.

The cameras have to survive 150-mile-an-hour winds, they have to work at 40° they have to survive deep snow storms, torrential rainfall with the rain blowing at hurricane force sideways. And I was actually quite anxious that first year or so. And we deployed a very expensive 25 camera network in the spring of 2007, not really knowing for sure how well the stuff would survive those elements.

But I really felt the pressure of time. Like, you know, this situation is changing. I can't wait, I can't do lab experiments, I can't take it into some cooler for a year and see if it's going to work. We have to catch these scenes right now because the world is disappearing in front of our eyes.

BILL MOYERS: Perversely perhaps the time I felt most keenly for you was not when you were rappelling down the side of that crevasse but then you had opened one of those cameras on a second or third visit and it hadn't worked.

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, we went through a lot of different iterations of the electronics. But that doesn't mean we didn't have some challenges. We have still had cameras knocked out by rock fall coming off cliffs. You know, these are very dynamic landscapes where we are. These are not static at all. There's a lot of rubble coming down the sides of these mountains.

We had one camera that was buried under 20 feet of snow in Alaska and just literally the entire system was peeled out of the-- off the bedrock by the weight of the creeping snow sliding downhill. We've had electronic glitches. And yet for the most part, the things actually work. And we just keep going on and on. And somehow, you know, our destiny is correct. We're supposed to be telling this story.

We feel the glaciers. It's almost-- it's almost tangible, it sounds bizarre, I guess. But you almost feel the power of those glaciers and those landscapes wanting to speak through you through those cameras.

JAMES BALOG IN FILM: It’s been shooting the entire time. Fantastic. Here’s the memory of the camera, and this is, actually that’s an interesting thought. This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization and it’s stored right here.

JAMES BALOG: Without the voice of the cameras they would really have no voice and these landscapes would just disappear and nobody would be the wiser. It would be as if a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear the sound. It's the exact same conundrum. If a glacier melts in the Arctic and there's no camera there to see it did it ever really exist? Did it ever really happen? Well, the cameras give life and give voice to those processes and those places.

The scientific language that this story is told in is profoundly, profoundly, profoundly important. And it's what we build the pictures on. So I don't want to forget that. But then when you stack the visualization on top of the scientific understanding and then you marry those two things together, the art and the science, and you have something really powerful.

BILL MOYERS: When I saw the NASA satellite imagery of Greenland I thought-- I honestly thought, "Why doesn't Jim Balog let NASA do it? He doesn't have to take the risk anymore. This technology's doing what he does."

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, you're exactly right. And we had that same conversation at the start of the Extreme Ice Survey. And the answer is that eyes in a satellite, camera eyes in a satellite that are 400 miles above the earth's surface tell one kind of a story.

And camera eyes that are in the hands of a human being down on the ground surface tell a different kind of a story. And humans can relate better to a story told from the human level than they can to a story told from the satellite level. Because that's where we live. We don't live 400 miles in the air. We live down here with our feet on the ground.

BILL MOYERS: Could you be describing a death spiral?

JAMES BALOG: Well, it's about mortality for sure, it's the mortality of those landscapes. And there is some sort of spiral of change going on in the Arctic. And time will tell if it's truly a death spiral or not. But it certainly is a period of enormous change.

But you know, I want to be clear that yes, I love the ice. Yes, I love the beauty of the ice. Is this a book about endangered species of ice? Not exactly. I mean, it is, that is what we're talking about. But really what we're talking about primarily is ice as a harbinger, as a predictor, as an avatar of change for the whole world.

BILL MOYERS: As you know some people don't think this change is bad. About the time my wife and I were watching your film I was also reading Elisabeth Rosenthal's reports in the New York Times on how Greenland's melting ice is uncovering vast new deposits of minerals and gems. I mean, the ice apparently has concealed one of the world's largest deposits of rare earth metals essential for the world's cell phones, wind turbines, electric cars. I mean, there's a, potentially she said, a new Greenland being created by global warming.

JAMES BALOG: Yes. This is true. It is undeniable. It depends on how you look at the world, I suppose.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but the CEO of one mining company in Greenland says, "For me, I wouldn't mind if the whole ice cap disappears." And a geologist, an Australian geologist working in Greenland says, "This is huge. We could be mining this for the next 100 years."

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, well, they're looking at the world through their own filter, their own perception. And yes, it's true. I have a cell phone, you have a cell phone and those minerals that feed that cell phone have to come from somewhere. Would I rather see it come from somewhere that's not this incredible pristine landscape, one of the last pristine landscapes in the world? Yes, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: But you know there are people who say that anything we do to combat global warming is an attack, direct quote, "On American middle class capitalism."

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, I've got a problem with that, and here's why. I just learned that back in the '50s, 1950s when people first started to say, "Hey, DDT is not good for the world," that same argument was brought out about DDT. It was like, "Hey, you're against American capitalism, you're against industry. This is no good, you should allow DDT." Well, guess what? It's turned out that stopping the widespread indiscriminate use of DDT has been a really good thing for you and me and all the plants and animals in the world.

Then in the 1960s and '70s when we started to learn that cigarette smoke was bad for human beings whether it was directly inhaled or it was secondhand smoke, same argument. You're trying to limit and regulate free market American capitalism. No fair, not good. Well, guess what? It's also turned out that regulating cigarette smoking is probably a pretty good idea, or at least minimizing the presence of it.

The same arguments are being brought out right now. You're against prosperity, you're against progress, you're against the American way of life. Guess what? The Stone Age didn't end because the world ran out of stones. That's a direct quote from one of the Saudi Arabian oil ministers from some decades ago. The Stone Age ended because we discovered that there were better tools around than stones.

And we're in the midst of something of a transition like that right now. It may be a long term transition, but we're in the midst of realizing that fossil fuels come with a lot of unintended Murphy's Law kind of consequences, a lot of things we weren't counting on and that there are indeed better tools to serve a significant number of our needs and purposes than burning more carbon and throwing it up in the atmosphere.

BILL MOYERS: You have two daughters?

JAMES BALOG: I have two daughters.

BILL MOYERS: What are their names?

JAMES BALOG: My daughter, Simone is 23 years old and my daughter, Emily, will be 11 in just a couple days.

BILL MOYERS: Now, when they saw you go off, you're going to far places, you're going to dangerous places, you're going to places where friends of yours have perished on those crystal waters. You're going to places where it's cold and, what do they think? How do you justify doing that to them?

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, now you, now you drove the stake through the heart here. It’s--

BILL MOYERS: No, but look, I saw in your film you rappel over the edge of some of these icy ridges down into what looks like a bottomless gorge.

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, it's terrifying. And I've had a lot of internal struggle over exactly the question you raise. And here's how I answer it. I picture myself when I'm 85 years old and I'm sitting in a rocking chair on the porch and I can't do any of this anymore. And I see those girls as grownups, I see them now in their 30s or 40s or whatever it is.

And they're saying to me, "Dad, the world has changed. The climate is profoundly different than the world you guys were living in back in the first part of this century. You were in a unique position to tell the story. What were you doing with your voice?"

And I want to be able to tell those girls, "Girls, I did the best I could. I really, I understood it, you know, I saw it. And it was important to me, I thought it was important to you. And I'm doing my best to tell the story with the skills and tools and time I have." And I made this sort of pact, this bargain with the fates in my head. I don't know if the fates are listening, but I guess the fact that I'm still standing here alive is-- means that they have been listening.

I'm going to do my best here, just give me a chance. Don't kill me when I go out there. And, you know, I get a little choked up and emotional because it's an emotional thing that you hold in your head when you're saying goodbye that last day before you go to Greenland or you go out to the glacier in Alaska. There's always that little voice in your head saying, "Well, this could be it."

BILL MOYERS: Have there been moment when you were close to it?

JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, there've been a number of them. And it's not a happy thing, believe me. It's not-- it doesn't fill you with a sense of peace and serenity. It's like, "Oh God, I shouldn't really be here. I hope we get out of this okay."

BILL MOYERS: And then you go back again?

JAMES BALOG: And then you go back again. And I go back because I feel there's a mission, there's a purpose, there's a need, there's a cause. And you know, Bob Dylan had a wonderful quote in an interview many years ago. Somebody asked him, "Well, you know, Bob, you're awfully old and you're still touring. And why are you doing this? Are you happy?"

And he said, "The point isn't to be happy. The point is to be doing what you're supposed to be doing. And it's very much the same way for me. This project comes with a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, a lot of risk, but it's what I'm supposed to be doing. All the currents of my life have brought me to this moment.

BILL MOYERS: Are we in your opinion; are we almost at a point of no return?

JAMES BALOG: I hate to say it, but yeah, I would have to agree with you. I can't sugarcoat that one. We are really right on the edge of the crisis. We might be in the crisis already. I mean the fact that year after year after year, this pollution of the atmosphere keeps going up remorselessly with no significant deflection is really a problem.

But we have the economic capacity, we have the technological capacity and we at least have the theories about how to govern ourselves in order to deal with this. We know how to do this. That's what's so God-awful ironic about this. We know how to deal with it and we're not dealing with it. So if we kind of wake up, we get out of our mental torpor and we can break the shackles of the special interest groups that are preventing positive progress on this we can handle this, we know how to do it.

BILL MOYERS: Are you going back up any time soon?


BILL MOYERS: You've had enough of the high country?

JAMES BALOG: No, never, never, absolutely not. I mean, it's just, it's so incredibly beautiful. When I'm getting ready for a lot of these trips, as I'm packing my cameras I go, "Good grief. How can I possibility shoot anything new on this trip? You now, it's going to be a repeat of the same old thing." And every single time I go out and reality delivers something new where you go, "Wow, I've never seen that before, and isn't that cool?" Click, get another shot.

BILL MOYERS: The book is ICE: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers and the film's title is?

JAMES BALOG: Chasing Ice

BILL MOYERS: Which you've done for a long time.

JAMES BALOG: Been chasing ice, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: James Balog, thank you for being with me.

JAMES BALOG: My pleasure, thank you.

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