'Chasing Ice': Stunning film also strong on science

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2012 - 2:57 PM

Review: James Balog and his team underwent severe trials to document climate change.

"Chasing Ice" is a grand adventure, a visual amazement and a powerful warning. The documentary follows acclaimed environmental photographer and former global-warming skeptic James Balog on his mission to capture what he calls "tangible visual evidence of the immediacy of climate change."

Until recent years, Balog couldn't believe that human intervention could change the planet's sea levels and glacial ice packs. Then he saw it for himself, revisiting sites where he had once seen "the endless variation and beauty and fascination" of glaciation, now reduced to bare rock. Balog felt that without having seen "the miracle and horror" of the collapse of an ice shelf the size of Lower Manhattan, people couldn't comprehend the forces that were at work. "What they need is a believable, understandable piece of visual evidence, something that grabs 'em in the gut."

Six years ago he established the Extreme Ice Survey, mounting three dozen high-tech time-lapse cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana. The goal was to record changes over six months, creating a video representation of glacial retreat.

The project was arduous for Balog, whose knees, abused by years of mountaineering, resembled baggies of loose gravel. At a frigid base camp we see him preparing his battered legs with braces "for the day's festivities." His team coped with vertiginous climbs over don't-look-down abysses, literally the height of danger. His specially designed camera systems took a battering from animals and extremes of cold and wind. At times, the project seems like an exercise in futility.

Producer/director Jeff Orlowski makes Balog's frustration touchingly dramatic, capturing moments when he wipes away tears. Like Balog, Orlowski uses evocative, emotional imagery to illustrate the hard facts that ice is on the run and seas are on the rise.

"Glaciers matter because they're the canary in the global coal mine," Balog said. "They're where you can see climate change happening." He sees the issue not as a matter of policy but of perception. With the information his cameras could provide, "we still have a chance to face the greatest challenge of our century."

This week "Chasing Ice" was included in the 15-film shortlist for this year's documentary Academy Award. It's a thrillingly cinematic story, with breathtaking backdrops and cold-sweat scenes of imperiled climbers on iffy ledges worthy of an action epic. Its film values are as polished and impressive as its presentation of climate-change science, and that's saying a lot.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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