State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


‘Chasing Ice’: Watching History Unfold, and Disappear

James Balog, Chasing Ice
James Balog setting up a time-lapse camera by Columbia Glacier, Alaska. Photo: Extreme Ice Survey

Near the end of “Chasing Ice,” a hunk of glacier the size of lower Manhattan explodes, rolls and crashes into the sea. If that sounds like a spoiler, well, go see the movie and you’ll know you would have known it was coming anyway. And the beauty of the movie is that it will still astound you.

The scene inspires awe, and a touch of horror. But you don’t really get the idea just reading that: It’s better after watching more than an hour of photographer James Balog’s story, understanding what he and his team went through to capture such images, what they saw and learned about climate change and its effects on ice.

The Columbia Climate Center and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions sponsored a screening of the film, by Jeff Orlowski, Thursday at Barnard College. Balog, trained as a scientist and already an established outdoors photographer, was inspired by an assignment for National Geographic, and set out on a monumental quest to record what’s happening in some of the world’s coldest regions.

He and his team set up remote cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana and – with many technical and hair-raising, physical challenges along the way – snapped a photo every hour of every day for two to three years.

Chasing Ice
Adam LeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland. Photo: Extreme Ice Survey

What they brought back brings home climate change in a way graphs and numbers and speeches can’t really convey.

The movie was followed Thursday by a chat with a panel of varied experts, who spoke about how effective the film is, what it tells us, what’s missing from it, and how we might improve our abilities to communicate the urgency of the climate change issue. Some of their thoughts:

Stephanie Pfirman, professor of environmental science at Barnard and an adjunct research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: As she watched the calving ice in the movie, she had a sense of losing something for good; it would take thousands of years for the ice to rebuild, she said, though it’s disappearing in just decades. “It’s something of a death, and we’re really witnessing history.”

Since she began her own research in the 1980s, she noted, the amount of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean has declined from 7-8 million square kilometers to 3.4 million square kilometers as of last September.

Maribeth Murray, executive director of the International Study of Arctic Change at the International Arctic Research Center:  We’re losing a record of our history as well, she said, from the record in the ice of past climate events that influenced human history.

As for the impact on Arctic peoples, “it’s a mixed bag.” They’re worried about the impact on traditional livelihoods such as fishing, hunting and transportation. But opening the Arctic region to mining and other resource extraction could provide economic benefits.

Anne Siders, a postdoctoral research scholar with the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law: From a legal standpoint, the loss of Arctic sea ice is “the opening of an entirely new ocean. It’s a new challenge for us.”

Siders was caught by the reactions of others watching the movie – the shock and awe. “The visceral reaction is something we don’t get enough of” in climate conversation.

Debika Shome  of the Harmony Institute, formerly with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions: The audience that might come out to see “Chasing Ice” is a self-selecting group, already worried about climate change. So, asked an audience member, how could people spread the word?

Shome said social media is one way – using new media to expand on the movie in creative ways and try to draw a broader audience, or to prompt people to act.

Sabine Marx, managing director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions: Communicating climate science and the need for action is a complex problem that requires cooperation from many fields, she said – science, psychology, journalism and others. “We’re facing a motivation deficit.”

She had some advice on reaching a broader audience:

  • Use more affect-based, emotional communication, like this film; try to combine an affect-based approach with an analytical one.
  • Identify what people care about, what they are worried about, what are they passionate about, and tie the conversation to that.
  • Consider what are the co-benefits of controlling climate change: less pollution, cheaper energy bills from efficiency, a less volatile planet for the grandchildren, perhaps.
  • Stick to what you know about climate change, and how you got to it; personalize your argument with your own story of how you came to believe what you believe.
  • And look for what you can do; don’t stop after the first thing – “don’t just change your lightbulbs.”

For more on the movie:

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11 years ago

Wow, those glaciers look absolutely stunning. Is it difficult to walk on the flatter surfaces or is it only difficult when climbing through holes and climbing up or down the ice faces?