Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

The ‘Canary in the Coal Mine’ of Climate Change: Dying Glaciers


Imagine a mass the size of Manhattan breaking off a mountain and falling into the ocean. It’s an event few have witnessed, but nature photographer James Balog and his crew got to see just that while filming a new documentary about the waning of glaciers across the globe.

That film, ‘Chasing Ice,’ is screening at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas this week. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the rapid recession of glaciers in the face of climate change. Balog and his team capture intense moments where gigantic pieces of glaciers “calve,” or break off into the sea.

But even more fascinating is a robust effort by Balog to capture over time the disappearance of the glaciers. Using dozens of digital cameras powered by miniature solar panels, the photographer and his team set up glacier monitoring stations (in some very remote, treacherous locations) that took a picture of each glacier every day. They called it the Extreme Ice Survey. Even in the span of one year, the regression is stark. Seen over several years, it’s even more so. Edited together, the images show huge masses of ice slowly deflating like a balloon. (And there are helpful visual comparisons in the film to show the scale of just how much regression has occurred.) In some cases, the crew have to hike back to their cameras to pan, as the glaciers have disappeared so much that they’re no longer in view.

Photo by NASA

A major calving event at a glacier in Antartica.

Take Glacier National Park, for instance, in Montana. A hundred years ago, the park had some 150 glaciers, earning its name. Today there are only twenty-five, and in a few decades (or less) there may be no glaciers there at all. “I still get depressed on this issue on an almost daily basis,” Balog said after showing the film Friday. “Frankly, I was relatively oblivious to it before.”

You can watch a TED talk by Balog here, and see several time-lapse videos of disappearing glaciers from the Extreme Ice Survey here. The film ‘Chasing Ice’ will likely be available for you to see soon — the National Geographic Channel has purchased the television rights, and Oscilloscope Laboratories has acquired the film rights.


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