Photographs by James Balog (left) in 2006, and Extreme Ice Survey with Matthew Kennedy in 2012
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The Columbia Glacier in Columbia Bay, Alaska photographed in 2006 (left) and again in 2012. When Balog first photographed the debris-streaked Columbia Glacier, its face had retreated 11 miles since 1980. That pace compelled him to launch the Extreme Ice Survey, installing cameras at 18 glaciers to witness climate change. Iceberg-choked Prince William Sound reveals that the retreat of the Columbia Glacier is accelerating: It’s lost two more miles of ice in six years. And since 1980 it has diminished vertically an amount equal to the height of New York’s Empire State Building.
Photographs by James Balog (left) in 2006, and Extreme Ice Survey with Matthew Kennedy in 2012

Visible Proof of a Warming Planet

This post was originally published in September 2013. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #Throwback series, which gives more love to our favorite posts. Climate change is the subject of the November 2015 special issue of National Geographic.—The Proof Team

Stories often take years to create. This one began seven years ago when, in early 2006, Colorado science and nature photographer Jim Balog came to us with an idea about photographing a melting glacier in Iceland. While we liked the idea, it also occurred to us that this story could be bigger in scope, especially since glaciers worldwide have been melting at an alarming rate. Photographically documenting the shrinking ice globally would be a stark visualization of the changes happening to our climate.

So in the summer and autumn of 2006 Jim traveled to three continents to photograph disappearing glaciers. His images became part of the June 2007 cover story, “The Big Thaw: Ice on the Run, Seas on the Rise.”

The biggest challenge in covering melting ice is to show change, to show difference. You need to photograph a place once to provide a baseline look, then return to the same place, perhaps years later, to see if it looks different. That’s the underlying premise of the October 2013 story “Meltdown,” which includes images of a glacier photographed in 2006 and 2012.

December 18, 2012—National Geographic photographer James Balog discusses Chasing Ice, a new documentary featuring time-lapse photographs of the rapidly melting Arctic. Balog has been photographing shrinking glaciers since 2007 as part of the Extreme Ice Survey.

In some cases the ice in the locations Jim shot had shrunk a lot, in others not as much. In all cases, however, there was less ice visible. Simply put, temperatures are going up in places where we photographed glaciers.

Jim’s original 2006 work also created something bigger. In 2007 he started the Extreme Ice Survey to document the loss of ice worldwide. With help from National Geographic technicians, Jim built an array of solar-powered time-lapse cameras and mounted them near glaciers in nearly 30 locations globally. The cameras take one picture an hour for every hour of daylight for a year, and the pictures are assembled into dramatic time-lapse movies that show how glaciers behave over time.

This photographic proof of shrinking glaciers, combined with other examples like rising seas and changing seasons, helps provide evidence that our climate is changing, warming up—and that the world is becoming a very different place.

Dennis Dimick is the executive editor for National Geographic magazine. Follow Dennis on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.

You can see more of Jim Balog’s glacier photographs and movies at: Follow Jim on Twitter at @earthvisiontrst.