National Geographic photographer James Balog is the star of the documentary Chasing Ice, one of the most-sought tickets at this week’s Sundance Film Festival. But there’s a great story lurking behind the film’s second lens, too.
Chasing Ice, which will premiere at a sold-out screening tonight in Park City, follows Balog on a five-year quest to document ice loss due to climate change in the Arctic. Balog built his own time-lapse cameras and stationed them on some of the world’s most remote glaciers and ice fields. By taking one shot per hour, Balog’s contraptions -- which had to withstand 200 mph winds and minus-40 degree temperatures while running on solar power -- created breathtaking motion-picture sequences of glacial retreat.
Chasing Ice combines Balog’s time-lapse sequences with documentary footage shot by his expedition mate, 27 year-old Jeff Orlowski. Balog has been getting plenty of deserved exposure in Park City, but Orlowski, the film’s director, has an equally compelling tale.
Six years ago Orlowski was a Stanford undergrad and aspiring photographer who became captivated by Balog’s work. A mutual friend connected the two, and Orlowski joined Balog on an expedition to Iceland in the spring of 2006. “I spent my college spring break with James, just volunteered my time and busted my butt,” Orlowski told me last week. “I was trying to contribute in any way I could.”
Orlowski returned to Palo Alto the day before his graduation, picked up his sheepskin and a video camera, and flew off to Greenland, Balog’s next stop.
Old-fashioned field mechanics consumed much of their time. “On that first expedition, James realized the system he’d built wouldn’t work,” Orlowski recalled. “The ground in Iceland was too soft to support his tripod. It would shift over time, which renders the time-lapse photos useless. So we started rebuilding.”
“We hit every hardware store in Iceland,” he said. “Did you know you can’t find a stick of pressure-treated wood in all of Iceland?” He and Balog ended up doing the same thing in Greenland and Alaska. “The equipment had to be rebuilt and refined in every environment.”
I asked Orlowski how Balog knew the equipment was working. “He didn’t,” he said. “There was no way to remotely check. That was a major point of difficulty. We had times where we’d rent a helicopter to get to a remote location, and by the time we’d installed the camera, we didn’t have an hour to wait around and see if the camera’s working. The helicopter had to get back. It was incredibly nerve-wracking.”
There were failures along the way. “We kept returning to James’ locations over the years. Some camera boxes had been broken by rockfall. Others were hit by sand or buried under snow.” And the timers were notoriously finicky. Tinkering with the internal electronics was beyond their abilities, Orlowski said. “We hooked it up, and it either worked or it didn’t.”
The pair’s work documenting climate change won’t stop with the premiere of Chasing Ice. Balog’s time-lapse cameras have recently been placed on Mount Everest, in the Alps, and high in the Bolivian Andes. He’s also moving beyond ice as a global warming marker. One of Balog’s next projects documents the loss of Colorado’s mountain pine forests to a beetle infestation, which has grown to epidemic proportions as climate change has warmed the mountain peaks. (See “Whitebark Pine Officially Endangered: Trees as Climate Casualties.”) Pinebark beetle populations are usually held in check by the cold snaps of the Colorado winter. But global warming has eliminated many of those ultra-cold periods, allowing the beetles to flourish.
“James has time-lapses of trees completely green, then going from green to red to brown and dead,” Orlowski said. “What we’re hoping to provide is visual evidence that evokes an emotional response in people. There’s so much scientific evidence out there, so much information, and so much intentional obfuscation. When you look at these time-lapse sequences, you can’t deny them. This is an actual record of recent history all around the world.”
The evidence of one’s own eyes may prove more difficult to deflect than Al Gore’s charts. “Now when we encounter skeptics, they no longer deny the imagery,” Orlowski told me. “They fall back to arguments about specificity and the time window -- it’s only five years, or it’s only these glaciers. Their arguments are getting weaker and weaker.”
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Images: Adam LeWinter/Extreme Ice Survey