"Use your voice." Standing before the audience at the New York City premiere of "Chasing Ice" in October, photographer James Balog offered this encouragement to individuals wondering what they can do in the face of global climate change.
"Chasing Ice" follows the work of Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey project, a long-term photographic study of the impact of climate change on the world's glaciers. It focuses on the expeditions of the EIS team to install solar-powered cameras overlooking glaciers in some of the most remote regions. Time-lapse images from these cameras show the glaciers retreating at a stunning rate.
Both Balog and director-cinematographer Jeff Orlowski said they went into the project not knowing if the cameras would capture such remarkable change. Orlowski told The Huffington Post that he believed Balog and his team were undertaking an interesting project and found their mission "compelling" from the outset. But only after a year and a half of filming did he push to produce a feature. "We knew that we had a story," he said.
Balog noted, "We really didn't know what the glaciers were going to do" or "what would happen in the course of one or two or five years." Yet what they discovered was "completely shocking."
"You kind of have this mindset that these glaciers are these slow-moving creatures, and you just kind of think that they're stagnant and always just sitting there," Orlowski said. "I think what [Balog] really accomplished in the time-lapses was revealing to the world a very different way of understanding how the planet's changing."
The origins of the EIS go back to early 2005 when Balog took on an assignment for The New Yorker. "I really resisted that assignment," he said, thinking at the time that climate change was "unphotographable." But "the demands of that assignment" pushed him to explore what was possible.
A former skeptic, Balog noted that in the past, he "wasn't so convinced the whole climate change story was real." He said, "I thought that the whole story was based on computer models. Twenty years ago, computer models were relatively sketchy. They're quite good now."
After learning more about climate science, Balog said, he came to "realize that it wasn't about computer models -- it was about empirical evidence drilled up out of those ice sheets." It dawned on him in the late 1990s, he said, that "we need to revise the way we're thinking about the world."
"Most people don't really have it in their mental landscape that something as grand and seemingly all-enduring as the atmosphere can be changed by human intervention," said Balog. "It all seems too big."
The release of "Chasing Ice" comes near the end of a year that has a more than 90 percent chance of being the warmest ever recorded. This year also saw Arctic sea-ice levels hit a record low, with the summer minimum covering an area 49 percent smaller than the average in 1979, when satellite records began. Climate change may also bring more extreme weather and exacerbate the effects of storms like Hurricane Sandy, which rocked New York City two weeks after the film's premiere.
"Chasing Ice," which won the Excellence in Cinematography award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, opens in New York City and Toronto on Nov. 9 and in other cities across the U.S. and Canada on Nov. 16.