January 28, 2010 News » Cover Story

Charting the meltdown 

World-renowned photographer James Balog talks about the art, science and politics embedded in his glacier photography

UPDATE: James Balog is coming to Colorado Springs. Click here for more information.

Everything about James Balog cries out, "Extreme."

Not in the X Games, adrenaline-junkie sense of the word, but in the more profound, yin-and-yang kind of way in which opposites make up a whole.

As a Boulder-based artist and professional photographer, Balog has produced a half-dozen beautiful, glossy books about wildlife, forests and other environmental subjects. His work has appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker, Life and Vanity Fair, and photos he shot of melting glaciers around the world became a June 2007 cover story in National Geographic titled "The Big Thaw."

But as a guy with a graduate degree in geomorphology (the study of landforms), the 57-year-old Balog gets more wound up talking about science than art, particularly when the subject is climate change. He believes that the days of arguing whether human activities are causing the earth to get warmer should be over.

"It's critical to understand that nature isn't natural anymore," he says.

What Balog saw on his National Geographic shoots led him to launch the Extreme Ice Survey. The project now has 33 cameras set up to take hourly pictures at glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, and the resulting time-lapse images showing rivers of ice receding up valleys or collapsing into ocean inlets tell "the story of the glaciers," in Balog's words. He believes they, along with still images, can connect viewers viscerally to the impacts of fossil fuel consumption.

That is, as long as he can actually put those images in front of people.

So between trips to the glaciers to set up new cameras and download images, Balog spends much of his time raising money or traveling to talk about his work. (While most often in front of general audiences, he's also participated in a congressional briefing on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and attended the Copenhagen climate summit in December.) Extreme Ice, a NOVA/PBS documentary on the the project, carried Balog's work to a wide audience last March. Plagued by knee problems developed in the field, he's trying an experimental procedure involving stem cells so he can stay on his feet and keep up his grueling schedule.

The hectic pace shows as Balog sits down at his office for an early afternoon interview, in advance of the Feb. 5 opening of his photographic exhibit at Smokebrush Gallery. Delayed for several minutes by a phone call, he takes out a sandwich at the start of the interview, and prefaces the discussion by saying he hopes to keep it to about 20 minutes.

But as he starts talking, Balog gives in to his passion, describing his hope that people will cut back on their energy use and demand policy changes so that the worst effects of global warming might be avoided. Though he and others working on the project sometimes feel like "rats in an electroshock experiment," as he puts it, he believes his busy schedule attests to the project's success.

An hour later, he breaks off the discussion with apparent reluctance. He has to meet with his bookkeeper. The grind goes on.

Indy: You photograph glaciers over time from visually striking places. What do you think are the strengths of using that approach at this point in the Extreme Ice Survey?

JB: I've been very conscious for several decades when I'm doing these projects that involve challenging, provocative or controversial subjects, and sometimes painful subjects — I've been very conscious that you need to seduce the viewers with some kind of visual point of entry. You've got to seduce them with the pure visual pleasure, or drama, first, and then you embed the story underneath it, so the artistry becomes a way to seduce, to bring people in, to the large story you are trying to tell.

Indy: Some people might argue that's a bait-and-switch type of tactic, especially those who think global warming is not true, or it's a natural cycle over which we have no control.

JB: I don't think it's bait-and-switch, although you could try and apply language to that. In terms of the controversial-ness of the climate change story, I don't see a contradiction there at all. It is critical to everything I am doing to understand that the scientific context — measurable, quantifiable, not based on projections, [but] based on an 850,000-year record of paleoclimates in the ice cores — is critical to understand that nature isn't natural anymore, and that the atmosphere we have created over the past 200 years is an atmosphere that hasn't existed on this planet for way, way longer than civilization has existed.

That is measurable, precise and quantified. That knowledge doesn't come from a bunch of hippie academics in Boulder and East Anglia, making stuff up. That has been measured over and over and over again by boots-on-the-ground science, scientists from many, many different countries who've worked on the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. That's the framework on which our pictures are based.

Indy: The ice cores go back thousands of years. How do you make that link between what is observable right now and the record contained in those ice cores?

JB: We've been in the field three years. That's what we can speak to. We're showing the process of ice loss that's happening right now. Of course, that's what we speak to, those three years. But it's anchored in an extremely well-established record of ancient climates that goes back almost a million years. It's unmistakable and irrefutable.

I've had this argument with very hardcore climate skeptics who say it's natural variation. It isn't natural variation, and the climate skeptics have never come up with any explanation for those long-term temperature records.

Indy: But every time there's a piece of evidence to the contrary, like news about a temperature record adjustment, everyone says, "Ah, see, they've been deceiving us all along." Case in point, the local daily newspaper in Colorado Springs, the Gazette, runs editorials on every piece of news ...

JB: They are poorly informed. I will bluntly say they are poorly informed. They don't know the facts. I said that on CNN to one of the leading, um, let's charitably call them lobbyists, working on the skeptical side. He doesn't know the facts.

Indy: Leading climate scientists have been making the argument for years that we need to be cutting emissions. How do you see your work making a difference when both sides seem so entrenched?

JB: I don't think we have a problem of economics and technology in responding to climate change. We have a problem of perception, because not enough people get the reality of what is happening, and there has been an aggressive pushback by status quo interests to keep people confused, to keep them thinking there's no problem.

This is a bipartisan issue, it's a nondenominational issue. It's of profound consequence to everybody on the planet today. It has profound consequences for national security, economic security, health, and last but not least, environmental quality. But before that, it's national security.

That's what you guys should be telling your audience in Colorado Springs. This is a national security issue of a very high order, because we are spending boatloads of money to defend the oil supplies in the Middle East so we can keep burning them. Would we rather be more secure having energy supplies in the United States that are renewable, or would we rather sacrifice the lives of our young men and women in the desert sands?

Indy: It's interesting that you're having an exhibit in Colorado Springs, known for megachurches and organizations like Focus on the Family. I've heard evangelical Christians from Summit Ministries, for instance, say it's essentially hubris to think humans could have this impact on the climate. Can you talk about how you might reach people who come at climate change from that angle?

JB: I'm very interested in that audience. I actually welcome the opportunity to speak at some of those churches, if the day ever came that I could. I would first note that there are some churches there that are very much involved with ... there's a term for it and it's escaping me right now. But they are preaching the message of environmental stewardship. They are taking the stance that the Earth is a creation that was given to us by God, and we have a responsibility to maintain it in a positive, sustaining way ...

Indy: Creation care, I think.

JB: Creation care, thank you. There's been a schism in the evangelical community between those guys and everybody else. Those guys are saying we have a biblical responsibility to take care of the planet. I see what we are doing as part of speaking to that message and that sensibility.

The other argument that it's hubris ... I don't think it's true. I think it's in part derived from the older fundamentalist view that the Earth is a resource, a passive stage that was put here for our unbridled use and pleasure. That is clearly a flaw in the theology. Any thoughtful person who looks at the challenge of resource use on this planet today has to be a little bit humbled around the idea that maybe this is not an infinite planet.

Indy: Can you talk about a certain image, or place that you've gone, where you feel it's been particularly powerful to viewers? Has there been one image where there have been a few people who may have completely changed their minds?

JB: One of the most gratifying moments was, I gave the slide show at a museum in Florida, and a guy came up to me afterwards. Retired gentleman, white hair — you know, it's a golf community, so he had on one of those bright like canary-yellow sport coats, with a lime-green polo shirt. And he said, "Mr. Balog, pleased to meet you. I thought this climate change business, this global warming business, was a bunch of crap. I used to be [an executive] for Texaco. You have shown me that I was wrong."

But is there any one picture? The time lapses are incredibly powerful for people. They kind of harvest what's visible, and make it real. I've never seen glacier flow. The cameras see it. So, when you suddenly reveal this new aspect of the world, and you make it real like that, you can hear the "oohs" and the "aahs" in the room as this unimaginable series of events is made manifest through these pictures. Cumulatively, they kind of grab people by the shoulders and shake them.

Indy: This work obviously takes you to a lot of cold and inhospitable places. Can you talk about your experiences in the field? Have there been near misses with icebergs calving or anything like that?

JB: It can be a very tiring, very dangerous, very stressful project, in a lot of ways. I'm going to go off on a tangent. ... In my darker nights of despair, I ask myself, "Why are you putting yourself through this?" My answer is, that there's a voice in my head, and the voice is of my daughters — I've got an 8-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old daughter — and I fast-forward through time, and I imagine myself as an old man in a rocking chair, and I imagine them saying to me, "Dad, what were you doing 25 years ago when the climate was changing, when the world was coming apart? Were you paying attention? Was your society paying attention?"

Now I can't speak for my society, but I can speak for me, and I want to be able to say to those kids, with a straight face, I saw what was happening, I knew what it meant, and I did the best that I could to communicate the reality of that.

I do think that the future is going to look back on the naysayers and judge them in a very harsh light. I think it's somewhere between unethical and criminal, with maybe immoral in between, because the evidence — for God's sake, the evidence — is so compelling and so powerful, and they're so unwilling to look at the clear-cut information that is so well understood by thousands and thousands of researchers from around the world. I think, 25, 50 or 100 years from now, the future is going to look back at this foot-dragging and denial and say, "What were you guys thinking of? How could you be so goddamned indifferent? How could you not have been paying attention?"

Now, I went off on a tangent. What did you ask me?

Indy: Has it been dangerous ...

JB: Oh, yes. We've been hit by rockfall. We almost went down in the very, very cold water of the North Atlantic when a helicopter started to fail. We managed to get back to the airstrip before we went down. And you'd die. You go in that water, you'll be incapacitated within a few minutes because it's so cold, and you'd be dead in 10 minutes.

We do a lot of very serious technical ice climbing in very dangerous circumstances. We had one camera that was hit by a rock fall ... At that same site, one of the field guys and I got hit by rock fall that came down. We had helmets on, and fortunately none of the rocks were big. We got a little bruised up on the shoulders and arms. I've basically destroyed one of my knees in the course of this field work. I'm on the second surgery in three years.

Indy: How do you spend your days? Is a lot of it just funding these operations?

JB: Here, it's almost the end of January, and I haven't been in the field since early September. I have spent all the time between early September and now either doing outreach — that is, giving speeches, telling the story that the glaciers are telling — or raising money, or frequently both.

Between Aug. 20 and Dec. 20, I was traveling every week except one. Which sounds good to most people until you do it, and then you realize what a brain drain it is, what a drain on your body it is. The fragmentation of your existence is just unbearable. My life was nothing but packing and unpacking suitcases. It got to the point in early November where I was so tired of getting up one Sunday morning to go on an early flight to give a speech in Mexico. I remember being in the car, I'd had a cup of coffee, and I said, "Jim, you just may actually be so tired, your body is just going to stop." I have never been so depleted in my life.

Indy: What's the immediate future for the project? How many cameras do you have out now?

JB: Thirty-three are out right now, in Alaska, Montana, Greenland and Iceland. We're gonna put two in British Columbia, Canada in the next couple months. We're probably putting six around Mount Everest in March, maybe eight. I'm hoping, if my knee recovers from this injection cycle, that I'm going to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in September to camp up there for a week and photograph the ice, because that ice won't be there in 50 years or so. Maybe 100, I don't know. But that ice is not long for this world. We won't do time-lapse cameras up there but I just want to go shoot some frames.

We're probably, aside from Everest and British Columbia, we're probably nearly done with putting out ice-based time-lapse cameras, but what we are doing now is expanding EIS to look at other subjects that aren't just about ice but they're about the world changing in this era of human impact on the planet.

We've got a big project coming down the pike on the extinction of some penguin colonies in Antarctica. We have a project on melting permafrost and the release of methane from the tundra in Alaska. We also have something we're working on in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico that's speaks about a drought in ancient Mayan times and how that impacted the fall of Mayan civilization.

We also are very interested in the changing forest cover in the Rocky Mountains. There's, as you know, the pine beetle, [which] is all part of a much bigger story that reaches all the way up into Canada.

We intend to keep the ice cameras going more or less indefinitely now. Originally, the cameras were supposed to be out of the field by now but we've become committed to the idea that we've got such a breathtaking historical record, we've got to keep going, we can't stop. We owe it to the future, to show them what happened.

Indy: How do you show the extinction of a penguin colony, for instance?

JB: Trade secret. If I tell you and you publish it there will be competitors who will poach it from me. But I just learned about this project a month ago and by the time I got done learning about it I thought, "... I can photograph that with time lapse. Nobody's done that before."

Indy: Something I wanted to make sure we asked about was Copenhagen. There's the feeling of going backward on global responsibility on climate change. Obviously, the U.S. didn't participate in Kyoto, but now that's expired and there's a much weaker agreement. What hope is there for global consensus that will actually make a meaningful difference?

JB: Yeah, there's certainly a sense of frustration with what came out of [Copenhagen], but I don't think it can be that one incredibly important thing can be ignored — that is that the United States is back in with the game of engaging with the rest of the world. And I heard it over and over again from people from other countries, from other delegations. All the people who come from elsewhere say, "You guys are here! You've got an administration that's paying attention to the science, for crying out loud! Finally, finally you guys are at the table in a big way." That's a big positive development, bittersweet and frustrating as it is for us in the United States at times to think in those terms.

I think Copenhagen kind of grabbed us all by the lapels and said, "We can only go so far, and it's going to come to individuals doing individual things in individual places."

Indy: And you're going to be working as an ECO ambassador at the Olympics?

JB: Yeah, Samsung hired us to be their official ECO ambassador to the Winter Olympics.

Indy: So what does that mean?

JB: Giving speeches, and they show our pictures in an electronic exhibition on the big Jumbotron screens and stuff like that.

Indy: I heard that they're having trouble with one of their hills for the snow sports, it's just dirt.

JB: It's been a bad year. It's been really warm and rainy.

edie@csindy.com, lane@csindy.com

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