Chasing Ice: The Local Connection

Guest Blog | February 14, 2013 | Climate Change
Melting Glacier
Image from Chasing Ice

If you know someone who still hasn’t bought into the idea of anthropogenic climate change, Chasing Ice, a documentary that reveals stunning images of glaciers retreating, could serve as a powerful educational tool.

The subject of Chasing Ice, James Balog, is a long-time photographer who has explored the relationship between man and nature. The impetus for Chasing Ice came from Balog’s idea that one way for humans to grasp climate change was to see it. However, finding a way to “see” climate change is not simple because it’s hard to visualize an increase of 100 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Balog identified glacial retreat as one of the most striking visual manifestations of climate change, and started the Extreme Ice Survey. A time-lapse film of the face of a glacier retreating several miles in just a couple of years makes a powerful picture of the phenomenon.

Balog and camera
James Balog putting one of his cameras in place

Chasing Ice got great reviews–here and here and here – however, what was special about the showing of the film in Knoxville was that it was followed by a panel discussion, comprised of the filmmaker, Jeff Orlowski, and four local scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory: Tom Boden, head of ORNL’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center; Kate Evans from ORNL’s Computational Earth Sciences Group; and Stan Wullschleger, who studies the biological impacts of climate change at ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division. The panel moderator was Benjamin Preston, Deputy Director of ORNL’s Climate Change Science Institute.

Jeff Orlowski started working with Balog when Orlowski was an undergrad at Stanford University. He said at first they were just shooting background footage for promotional material for the project. After a few years, though, they realized they had enough for a full-length film. Chasing Ice is the result. In the panel discussion, Jeff was able to help us see the relationship between this documentary about a man’s quest and the global issues involved. He described how Balog’s view of climate change, originally skeptical, had changed over the course of his efforts to record these time-lapse movies of glacier retreat. Balog’s personal trials against weather, mountains and technology have produced some of the best evidence we have of the impacts of climate change on the planet. Jeff has had some trials of his own. He has been to a lot of remote locations to film: Greenland, Alaska, the Himalaya’s and the Arctic. He almost missed his Stanford graduation when he was trapped in Greenland waiting for storms to clear so that a helicopter could land to get him out of the remote valley in which they had been filming.

Tom Boden is in charge of the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at ORNL. He helps catalog and make available pretty much everything there is to know about carbon dioxide and its effects on the climate. Not only does this site contain a wealth of data about the subject, it also has lots of cool graphics, like this animation showing the growth of CO2 emissions around the world since the industrial revolution.

European Carbon Production, 2000


Stan Wullschleger told us about his work in the Arctic looking at the impacts of climate change on the plant life there. He said that as the permafrost melts, large quantities of frozen organic matter – ancient weeds, basically – are thawing and beginning to decompose. That decomposition releases CO2 and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It’s a vicious cycle.

Greenland Ice Model at ORNL
Greenland Ice Model at ORNL

Kate Evans gets to play with ORNL’s supercomputer. The Titan supercomputer at ORNL recently took the title of fastest computer in the world. Kate uses this computer to produce high-resolution models of the global climate. She’s also modeling the Greenland Ice Sheet, site of some of the glaciers shown in Chasing Ice. She said there’s no chance of the entire ice sheet melting in the near future, but we will see the edges withdrawing inland.

All of the panelists agreed that we will see future increases in global temperature. It’s too late to avoid that. But if we want to avoid truly catastrophic future scenarios we have to start now. This film is a great illustration of what’s happening, and these people are a great example of how we can take action. It’s good to know that there is so much great local talent working hard on the climate change problem.

If you want to add your efforts to theirs to help reduce climate change, a good place to start is at the Advocate for Climate Action page on SACE’s website.

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