The brisk, earnest Chasing Ice documents nature photographer James Balog as he creates the Extreme Ice Survey, an ambitious study of glaciers using time-lapse cameras set up to take photos every half-hour of daylight in locations throughout Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, and Montana. But it’s also a film about a didactic use of art to bring about awareness, debate, and social change. Balog’s work for National Geographic, The New Yorker, Life, and other publications has taken him around the world and included coverage of past natural disasters, but with EIS, he set out to directly inform and change minds about climate change by providing striking, alarming visual evidence about just how much the glaciers are melting and receding.
An even-keeled man devoted to what he does and to his work’s potential educational power, Balog brings together a young team to help install cameras in locations that aren’t exactly tech-friendly—even if the cameras survive the weather, they get buried in snow, taken out by rocks, or gnawed at by the local fauna. Just getting to them to make sure they’re working is a trek, and an accompanying side story follows how Balog’s knee problems threaten the project, as he goes from his latest round of surgery to strapping on crampons and climbing into snowy craters against his doctors’ orders.
Coming in under 80 minutes, Chasing Ice walks a line between effectively focused and skimpy, and Balog doesn’t emerge as a particularly defined character, other than through his love for his family and the risks that demonstrate his dedication to his work. But the EIS presents an intriguing answer to a question Balog posed to himself when starting, about “what you could photograph about climate change that would make it interesting.”
As someone who admits to having harbored skepticism about climate change himself, two decades ago, Balog is trying to present an image-based response to all the denialists featured in the news montages scattered through the film, people who scoff at the numbers and lack of scientific consensus on whether global warming exists, and what it entails. The film’s beautiful, troubling footage (shot by the director, who’s been working with Balog on the EIS since 2007) of melting ice formations provides a memorable bookend to accompanying shots of storms, fires, and floods from the last few years, ones that resonate urgently with the recent Hurricane Sandy damage still in the news.