Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Chasing Ice": a warning about climate change from the Extreme Ice Survey

Al Gore once said, “Nature does not give bailouts”.

That warning is certainly underscored by the recent documentary “Chasing Ice”, in which National Geographic photographer James Balog sets up a long term experiment to do time-lapse video of the retreat or melting of glaciers in a number of areas of the world, including Iceland, Greenland, the Himalaya, southern Alaska, and even Glacier National Park in Montana.

The project he helped found was the Extreme Ice Survey (link ). 

The film starts by summarizing a number of recent weather-related catastrophes that are likely to be related to global warming. Balog reiterates an observation Al Gore had made in his 2005 film and book, “An Inconvenient Truth”,  that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere has shot up in the past few decades to levels maybe 50% higher than all of those in human history.  The heat retention means a warmer planet, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, and much more extreme weather events in areas not previously exposed to them.

Balog  admits that, until he started the project, he had his own doubts on whether man alone could change the climate of the planet.

Very early, the film shows the process of “calving”, where an area of glacier half the size of Manhattan and maybe a thousand feet high breaks off and, in a matter of minutes to hours, falls apart, creating a spectacle with natural structures resembling a dream coastal collapse scene in Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception”.  The film also shows how the glaciers collect carbon black chips from the atmosphere, greatly accelerating melting of glaciers even in polar sunlight, releasing trapped air bubbles from tens of millennia ago.  The film also has shots of surreal beauty, as with some of the night scenes, well  comparable to the ocean photographic work of Ang Lee in his “Life of Pi”. 

The 75-minute film turns into an account of the technical process of setting up the cameras . A major microchip has to be replaced in many of them.  Balog (in his 50s when the film was shot) has developed knee problems. Some of the film shows his clinical problems with some unappealing medical shots of his limbs; he gets better after treatment with his own natural stem cells (again, a potentially politically important observation).  There are several younger men, both American and Icelandic, who help him, and that includes the film director Jeff Orlowski. I was impressed by just how physical the work of “being a scientist” is – there’s plenty of winter camping (even in a warming world), without a commercial yurt to rent.

At the end, the film reinforces the overwhelming acceleration in glacier loss (compared to historical evidence( and the scale of it, in miles per year of icecap hundreds of feet thick.  It's just not getting cold enough in winter to refreeze everything.  The film does quote the right-wing naysayers (like Rush Limbaugh), and answers the evidence that a very few number of glaciers have actually grown. 

The film is produced by Exposure Productions and distributed by Submarine Deluxe and National Geographic Films (which may make it non-profit).   

I saw the film at the Landmark E Street in Washington, before an almost sold-out small auditorium on a Sunday afternoon, in crisp high definition digital projection.  This movie would have been a good candidate for Imax for Smithsonian or science museum presentation.

Roger Ebert has commented that the film bears first witness to our own extinction.  The political and social ramifications of climate change may come at us much more quickly than we could have imagined, and have a lot of bearing even on personal ethics and individual life styles, and the relationship between the individual and the family and group. It seems curious to me that the political right wing doesn't even get this yet.  I can see how it could lead us to “radical hospitality”.

The website for the film is here

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Columbia Glacier in SE Alaska, relatively near Anchorage. I visited the area in August 1980. 

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