Extreme Photography: James Balog on Capturing Shrinking Glaciers

Text by Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph courtesy of James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey

In a career spanning more than three decades, James Balog has taken glamour shots of gorillas, ascended the planet’s tallest redwoods to capture their profiles, and dodged lava flows on active volcanoes in order to document eruptions. It should come as no surprise, then, that the intrepid photojournalist-artist-conservationist has chosen an extreme force of nature for his latest project: glaciers.
The Extreme Ice Survey began as an assignment for National Geographic, but in true Balogian fashion, quickly turned into something much more ambitious. As of today, 27 highly sophisticated time lapse cameras are recording the retreat of some of the world’s largest glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains. It is the most wide-ranging glacier study using ground-based photography ever conducted. Don't miss Balog and his colleagues as they document glaciers from Alaska to the Alps in the upcoming NOVA documentary "Extreme Ice" airing later this month on PBS (check your local listings for show schedules). Find out more about the project in the new book Extreme Ice Now (National Geographic Books).

Of all the canaries in the climate change coal mine, why did you chose to study glaciers?

We’re in a decisive moment of geologic history as well as human history, and glaciers are the most visible manifestation of this moment. Looking at them, people can see climate change occurring in a way that’s clear and obvious and easily understandable.

Is that what you are trying to do with the Extreme Ice Survery?
Yes, but beyond all that esoteric and philosophical thinking, what I’m trying to do is present tangible and visible evidence that makes people understand what the reality of climate change is all about.

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