“Ice is alive in some strange kind of way,” says James Balog, who has chronicled the disappearance of glaciers through the Extreme Ice Survey since 2007. “Glaciers are responsive to the weather and climate,” he says.
The undertaking was riddled with uncertainty: Balog didn’t know what exactly the glaciers would do; where along the rocky, remote terrain to fasten the time-lapse cameras; if they would work properly; or how he’d continue to fund the project over the years. But what he captured was the story of climate change etched in ice.
When Balog started flicking through the first images, it was “mind boggling.”
“We’d gather around the back of the camera and go, ‘Oh my god, can you believe that?’” He and the imagemakers, engineers and scientists were looking at the impacts of climate change. “I wasn’t sure how my audiences would feel about the visual evidence once I got it,” says Balog.
The project’s hardy cameras observe 23 glaciers. They record changes every half hour, year-round during daylight, generating about 8,000 frames per camera each year. Balog searched for solid bedrock to attach them and thought about light, composition and the advice of scientific partners.
He amassed countless images of glaciers retreating dozens of meters in a year and losing hundreds of thousands of tons of ice in a matter of a week. (He also created a free online tool to teach about climate.)
Ice is thinning and disappearing as the planet warms. In the last two centuries, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by 40 percent. A major greenhouse gas, it absorbs the Earth’s heat, slowly causing Earth’s temperature to rise and glaciers to retreat.
The vast majority of glaciers around the world are retreating. There are many accounts that Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska is receding. In Montana’s Glacier National Park, 130 glaciers that glimmered in 1910 have disappeared. Just 25 remain. The summer season has grown longer, and the number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) has tripled since the 1900s. In 2012, 97 percent of Greenland’s ice sheet surface thawed.
The melting has caused the seas to rise faster than before — about one-quarter of a centimeter per year.
In August 2014, the edge of Sólheimajökull Glacier rose 1.5 meters, causing concern in Iceland that a block of ice would break off and trigger a tidal wave.
What was the climate like thousands of years ago? The past can be put together again by studying tiny air bubbles enclosed in ice. Since the 1950s, scientists have drilled through layers of ice to learn about the chemical composition and climate conditions of the past.
Ice core records allow them to measure concentrations of greenhouse gases going back some 800,000 years. But will scientists still have glaciers from which to drill centuries from now?