People say a picture is worth a thousand words. That is what National Geographic photographer-scientist James Balog is betting on will change the minds of a few climate-change skeptics who view this film. Chasing ice documents the rapid retreat of glaciers, which Balog calls “the canary in coal mine” for climate change. The opening scene of the documentary takes place in Iceland with Balog wondering into the icy cold waters barefoot in order to get the perfect shot. This scene establishes what the audience will come to view quite frequently, is that Balog will push the limits to get the perfect shot.
Balog discovered his passion for photographing glacial change after shooting an important article on glaciers, which he would later describe as “a scouting mission” for a much larger project that he dubbed Extreme Ice Survey. Extreme Ice Survey is a project based around setting up dozens of cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana that would automatically photograph ice formations once an hour during daylight throughout the year, which would provide visual evidence of glaciers’ alarming rate of decay. First-time Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski documents as Balog assembles a team of glacier researchers, engineers and other kinds of experts who travel by helicopter, canoe and dog sled across three continents to set up custom-made electronics that control the cameras.
The project isn’t called Extreme Ice Survey for nothing. The camera equipment must survive negative temperatures and hurricane force winds. These conditions cause the first set of cameras to fail, but with a little determination Balog’s team figures out technical solutions to these problems and replaces the broken equipment. During this process though, Balog pays the physical price of having multiple knee surgeries, which eventually forces him away from the field and into the lecture hall.
In these lecture halls Balog displays the stunning results of nearly three years of time-lapse montages showing the rapid decay of glacial ice in the northern hemisphere. The before-and-after images are visually compelling, and the filmmakers do a good job of adding scale to images by comparing the height of the retreated glaciers to manmade objects like the Empire State building. The film unfortunately does a poor job at explaining the large role glaciers play in the Earth’s climate. In the end Chasing Ice does an effective job at combining awe inspiring images of the arctic landscape with Balog’s genuine passion for alerting the world to the dire state of glaciers around the world.