Global canary's photos send chills

Nov 11 2010 - 4:51pm

Images

James Balog photographed  200-foot-tall icebergs, formerly part of the Greenland Ice Sheet, floating into the North Atlantic Ocean, raising sea levels as they melt.
Oil washed into Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill earlier this year. One Cajun fisherman who handled the oil while working with Balog said, “De birds, de fish, anyting dat touches dees stuff, it die. Oh yes, yes.”
James Balog photographed people watching the Fimmvörðuháls eruption earlier this year in Iceland.
James Balog photographed  200-foot-tall icebergs, formerly part of the Greenland Ice Sheet, floating into the North Atlantic Ocean, raising sea levels as they melt.
Oil washed into Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill earlier this year. One Cajun fisherman who handled the oil while working with Balog said, “De birds, de fish, anyting dat touches dees stuff, it die. Oh yes, yes.”
James Balog photographed people watching the Fimmvörðuháls eruption earlier this year in Iceland.

Coal miners used to carry a canary into the mines. When the bird stopped singing, it was a warning that the air supply was becoming too dangerous for the miners.

James Balog says he's seen the canary in the global coal mine, and it's ice.

"Ice is the most tangible manifestation of climate change," he said, speaking of the glacial melting he's observed over the last three years, while photographing glaciers around the world.

"It's not about computer models or projections. ... It's there -- you can touch it, hear it, feel it and see it."

Balog, of Boulder, Colo., will share his experiences with the global canary through a series of free public presentations next week in Ogden.

The first presentation starts 7 p.m. Tuesday, in Weber County's Pleasant Valley Library. In addition to Balog, local mayors and commissioners have been invited to discuss what their communities are doing to reduce their carbon footprint.

The main event is Weber State University's convocations lecture, at noon Thursday in the school's Shepherd Union Ballroom B. Diane Stern, who organized Balog's visit for the office of the dean of the Lindquist College of Arts & Humanities, said the photographer will present a multimedia lecture, "2010: An Earth Odyssey in the Carbon Age."

"It's really about what he's been doing the last several years, documenting the effects of our long-term carbon addiction on this planet," said Stern.

During the week, Balog will work with students in science and photography classes.

"We're also going to be having, on campus, an exhibit of his photos," said Stern.

The images from Balog's "Extreme Ice Survey" will be on display 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, through Nov. 30, in the Union Building's Bridge Gallery.

Balog will wrap up his visit with a presentation about his work as an environmental photographer, starting at 9 a.m. Nov. 20, at the Ogden Nature Center. Seating is limited for this event, so reservations are required.

Extreme Ice Survey

Balog shot images of retreating glaciers for The New Yorker and National Geographic in 2005 and 2006, and was stunned to see how quickly the ice was disappearing. His response was to create the Extreme Ice Survey.

More than 30 cameras were set up on glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, each programmed to take a photo during every hour of daylight.

"I was naive enough at the start that I thought I'd be buying stuff off the shelf," Balog said. "I thought it would take about two weeks."

But the cameras needed to work in temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero, and stand up to snow, rain, high winds and falling rocks, so they had to be custom-made.

"Five months later, we were still building cameras," he said.

Then came the challenge of installing them.

"It was not uncommon to have to carry a 80- to 90-pound backpack, and visit the glacier by dog sled," Balog said, adding that it meant camping out in extremely cold conditions.

Jaw-dropping change

Balog thought he'd see evidence of change in six months to a year.

"I was surprised from the first month," Balog said, explaining that an assistant sent flash cards from a camera in Iceland.

"Once the sequence starts coming up, your jaw is just hanging open," he said. "It was mind-boggling, as I looked at just what had happened in a month, and how this nonstop photographic record caught this historic, extensive change. I never thought it was possible that it could change that fast."

About a year later, he saw the changes in person.

"An entire section of the glacier was gone. We were standing there in a big field of gravel going, 'Are we even in the same valley?' because it looked that different," Balog said.

He compared his original photographs of the area to the way it looked during the visit, and wondered if the photos were mismarked.

"It took a while to decide that an unimaginably large amount of ice was gone," he said.

Rewarding work

For his work on the Extreme Ice Survey, one of the environmental projects of Balog's Earth Vision Trust, the photographer has been named a Heinz Award winner. He'll be honored in a ceremony Monday in Washington, D.C. The award comes with an unrestricted cash prize of $100,000.

"I feel very fortunate," said Balog.

But he's also feeling rewarded by the work.

"This is a big piece of history happening right here," he said, adding that he believes people will see his work in the future and say, "Wow, he really caught something at a decisive moment of change."

The future

Funding for the Extreme Ice Survey runs out next summer, unless grants are awarded to carry it through 2014.

"The longer we can be witnesses ... the more powerful that is to people in the present, and the more poignant it becomes for people in the future," Balog said.

And he wants people to witness what's happening to the glaciers.

"I am firmly of the belief, after being immersed in the subject and attending so many meetings with so many unbelievably bright people, that America and the developed world does not have a problem with the engineering and technology of this climate change issue. Nor do we necessarily have a problem with the economics. The problem is with perception," he said. "We just prefer to be in denial and complacency."

And we can't afford to be complacent about disappearing glaciers, Balog said.

"We can get this right, but for the immediate future -- your life and mine -- these features are not coming back," he said. "It is a big deal in that it shows us, reveals to us, what's happening at the very big scale on the planet today. It is the canary in the global coal mine."

 

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