Commentary: 'Chasing Ice' and melting glaciers

The Sacramento BeeJanuary 2, 2013 

Seeing "Chasing Ice," a new movie that chronicles the rapid disappearance of the world's glaciers as man-made climate change proceeds, I was reminded of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

In "Chasing Ice," we watch transfixed at the beauty of ancient ice mountains larger than Manhattan falling into the sea even as we are struck by the horror of that destruction – and the moral dilemma it poses as we consume fossil fuels.

Similarly, we watch mesmerized in "Apocalypse Now" as a squad of helicopters transforms a beautiful tropical forest and village into a firestorm of napalm so soldiers can surf – capturing the beauty of a forest aflame and the brutality of war.

Both are "anti-lie" films, revealing harsh truths about our world and ourselves.

James Balog, a nature photographer and geomorphologist, was a climate change skeptic. Then he worked taking photos for the National Geographic story "The Big Thaw" and saw firsthand how rapidly a warming climate was melting the world's glaciers and polar ice.

He realized that statistical studies and computer modeling would not persuade people to reject business as usual.

It came to him as an epiphany that "The story is in the ice somehow." He decided to make it his life's work to capture the melting of the earth's ice for all to see with their own eyes – "evidence that grabs them in the gut."

This would be no easy task. He launched the Extreme Ice Survey – placing cameras at remote places under the harshest of conditions – to document hour-by-hour the retreating and thawing of glaciers and polar ice over a period of years.

The passion of Balog and his team shows in the risks they are willing to take to make climate change visceral to the rest of us. In the photo you see, Balog and an assistant had climbed down a vertical ice face to photograph seemingly bottomless rivers of melting ice flowing to the sea.

It is here that we have an "aha" moment. As carbon dioxide concentrations rise, the warmer the earth gets and the faster ice melts. The more ice sheets flow into the sea, the more sea level rises. More than 100 million people live within 3 feet of the average sea level. Oh, that's big.

The magnitude and urgency of the situation comes when Balog shows us just how quickly melting is occurring in only three years of time-lapse photography. Climate change is not about geologic eons and millimeters of change; it is about in-my-lifetime miles of change.

I saw "Chasing Ice" with my 16-year-old nephew at the Crest Theatre on Thursday, with tickets provided by the Kendeda Fund. His reaction was that we've got two groups of people skewing us toward inaction – "nonbelievers and people who are stand-still." In his thinking, the deniers aren't going to change, so the film rightly aims "to make the stand-still people more involved in what's happening."

As Balog says of himself, knowing that global warming is happening, we should be able to say to our children and their children, "Guys, I was doing everything I knew how to do."

"Chasing Ice" challenges us not to be mere spectators of the beauty and horror of destruction, but to take on the carbon problem each in our own way.

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