Extreme Ice Survey

by Jessica Walker

Photos by James Balog

What if the earth had a voice? The thought may sound like a children’s fairy tale, yet the reality is that our planet does communicate with us through changes in the environment. The Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) is working to capture those conversations and give the plant a “visual voice,” one picture at a time.

The EIS, a project of Earth Vision Institute, is a long-term photography program that records and maintains a portfolio of more than one million single-frame images of glaciers. Its mission is to collect visual evidence of the earth’s changing ecosystems. Through integrating art and science, the EIS hopes to influence public perception and inspire action.

Experienced environmental photographer James Balog founded the EIS in 2007 after a National Geographic assignment that involved photographing glacier changes worldwide. “Glaciers are the canary in the global coal mine,” says Balog, meaning that they can indicate larger problems with the environment. Even though Balog was skeptical about global warming and climate change at first, the evidence was too compelling. “Glaciers could be seen to be retreating in very short periods of time,” he says.

The Justin Brooks Fisher Foundation, with its interest in promoting conservation and sustainability, was a principal support of the EIS. Over the years, the EIS team strategically placed dozens of Nikon cameras throughout the world including Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains.

Once every hour of daylight, these cameras snap a picture of their glacier, with each camera producing about 8,000 frames per year. These photographs then are compiled into time-lapse videos that celebrate the natural landscape while also revealing retreating or thinning ice.

“Climate change is often abstract for people [in that] it’s connected to graphs and temperatures,” says Balog. “When you see the pictures, what the consequences are on the landscape, it gives you a different vocabulary.”

Using visual evidence, he notes, can make scientific information more accessible for a wider audience. The average person might not be able to interpret a specialist’s data, but they can easily recognize a shrinking glacier through the pictures or videos on the EIS’s website. Even scientists themselves can use the EIS’s pictorial archive to establish a baseline for gauging glacier change in years to come.

Getting to the glaciers is no easy feat for the EIS team. Although sites are selected for their scientific value and regional conditions, placing the cameras means expedition teams might need to travel by dog sled, fishing boat, or helicopter to their destination–not to mention the extreme weather and unforgiving terrain. Balog himself has been mountaineering since he was 19 years old which, he says, makes what he does possible.

Balog and his fellow adventurers’ journey is documented in the movie Chasing Ice. The film premiered on the National Geographic Channel in 2013, and is currently viewable on Netflix. It captures years of the EIS team’s work in delivering spectacular, comprehensive evidence of the planet’s changing glaciers. Chasing Ice received the 2014 News and Documentary Emmy award for Outstanding Nature Programming.

Another film project is also underway. As of January 2018, the feature-length documentary The Human Element: A Photographer’s Journey in the Anthropocene is in post-production. The film explores the four elemental forces–water, air, fire, and earth–but with an added fifth element: humans. For each element, the film will show not only how humans have impacted that resource, but also how nature has responded right back to those human actions. “As people change nature, nature changes us,” says Balog.

“We are living through serious, monumental change,” he says. Although a single person might not be able to change the whole world, he says that raising awareness through providing evidence–as the EIS does–is one way he can use his voice. “I feel this sense of urgency for people to wake up and pay attention.”

And what better way to get people to see the “big picture” than through a photograph?