Glaciers are the canary in the global coalmine and oh what a song

Balog glacier_620w

It could be argued that art is the best medium for revealing relationships between humans and nature, for reminding us that such relationships even exist. My son and I just watched the stunning 2012 documentary, “Chasing Ice.” We’d heard about it from a photographer we met while on a boat trip in Glacier Bay, Alaska

The film follows photographer James Balog’s single-minded passion and tenacity in conducting the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Once he got the idea to set up cameras to watch glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, the Rockies, Canada, and other harsh environments, he was launched on an odyssey of art, technology, engineering, mountaineering, and endurance.

True to any hero’s journey, Balog let nothing stop him. When the controller boards in all fifteen cameras failed, it meant a complete redesign and retrofit of every one, necessitating yet more trips back to each, first to discover and diagnose the problem, then to replace each controller, then in the next season to see if it worked (it did). He didn’t let a ruined knee stop him, either – even after surgery, rehab and his doctor’s strict orders to give up hiking and climbing. In one shot, we see him, post-surgery, struggling along in crampons and arm-brace crutches.

He addresses the question of why he is doing this, going to all this trouble, risking his life to do something so quixotic. He has several reasons, running the range from artistic to altruistic. His main reason is that people are confused and fed up with the “debate” about whether climate change is really happening. He saw its effects on assignment for National Geographic to capture a melting glacier, and was inspired to create EIS to bring two parts of human understanding together: art and science. He calls glaciers the canary in the coalmine of climate change.

The physical evidence can be subtle, but he notices and captures it all with his cameras. We see him kneeling on the ice and scooping up a handful of black goo:

“This stuff, this cryoconite, is made from a combination of natural dust that blows in from the deserts of central Asia, mixed with little flakes of carbon, fine particles of soot that come from wildfires, diesel exhaust and coal-fired power plants. And on top of it there’s algae that grows out here. All of that stuff accumulates in these little holes and because it’s black, it absorbs the sun’s heat more than the surrounding ice does. And all over the surface of the ice sheet, there’s literally billions of these little cryoconite holes melting away and filling up with water. And when you look down in those holes you can actually see these little bubbles of ancient air being released as the ice sheet melts.”

One of the time-lapse sequences he shows is of the Mendenhall Glacier, a place my husband, son and I had the great privilege of visiting on our trip to Alaska. Our guides operated from a remote camp on the glacier, accessible only by helicopter. They told us they had to move the gear tent every week, as the ice was melting so fast, water would collect beneath it and make the anchors unstable.

Tromping around in that wonderland of ice, I could understand why someone would become a glaciologist. It’s a landscape like no other: barren, windswept, constantly changing. Otherworldly blue light glows from deep within cracks and sheer cliffs, moulins and fissures. Streaks of black glacial silt striate surfaces and walls. Streams of fast-moving water furrow the ice — water so pure, you want to prostrate yourself and shove your face in to drink the purest water in the world. (Which we did.) And the whole thing is moving ever downward, flowing, a river of ice hundreds or thousands of feet deep, creeping to the sea.

Watching time-lapse images of the death of the Columbia glacier in Alaska broke my heart. It retreated so much in the time the EIS cameras recorded (2006 – 2009), the crew had to pivot and reposition the camera not two, not three, but four times, to keep ice in the picture as it receded out the right side of the frame. Chasing ice, indeed.

I was left sobbing, bereft for our beautiful, magical planet, watching these giants in their death throes, with gratitude welling up for the vision and sacrifices of this photographer, James Balog. He saw a need to make climate change vivid and real, and knew that his art could play an important role, a “seeing is believing” mission. Late in the film, there’s a quick shot of a guy at a conference saying he saw Balog’s work and quit his job to join the movement. A title onscreen gave his name and his former employer: Shell Oil.

It’s not necessary to understand this work intellectually. Sure, it’s breathtakingly beautiful, the subject irreplaceably special. Balog not only has great vision and the will to capture what he sees, he has the generosity to share it with the world, bringing to bear a lifetime of experience. At one point in the film, he takes his crew out to shoot at night. We are treated to a photo of the moon and a billion billion stars glittering in a black sky, shimmering across snowy cliffs and glowing through a giant gem of blue glacier.

“Way back, early in my career, I discovered that there was really something special about photographing at night, that places your mind on the surface of a planet. You’re no longer just a human being walking around in a regular world. You’re a human animal, striding around on the surface of a planet that’s out in the middle of a galaxy. We, as a culture, we’re forgetting that we are actually natural organisms and that we have this very, very deep connection in contact with nature. You can’t divorce civilization from nature. We totally depend on it.” ~ James Balog, from “Chasing Ice”

These grandfather and grandmother glaciers are frozen stories, ancient history, eons of life living and dying on the earth: breathing, moving, melting, freezing proof that time is utterly irrelevant. All moments are present in one place, one bubble of air frozen 100,000 years ago. That silt made of Asian deserts and midwestern power-plant soot is undeniable evidence of the interconnectedness of all. Balog’s art operates on a deep level, bypassing my skeptic’s brain and going straight into my animal body, resonating with the knowledge that I am literally made of the stuff of glaciers: water, starlight, carbon, ancient air, and stories.

When I sleep and dream of slow-moving rivers of ice, I am that ice, frozen for millennia, and dying now. Succumbing to the ignorance and hubris of modern humans, who deny my animal nature, have forgotten the stories, and can no longer hear the song. Yet, through the magic alchemy of art, the dream slides past all resistance, letting fear fall away like a calving glacier and drift to the sea, redeeming me.

A note on today’s painting:

I always paint from life, outdoors, so my senses and body can commune with the place in a conversation without words; color, light, sound, smell, and temperature are the medium. Today’s painting is a departure. I was inspired by one of James Balog’s night photographs, so I experimented with capturing that dark sacred night night filled with stars and glittering diamonds. As artists, we have a small palette with which to convey the truth of what we see and feel: words, paint, photography, music, dance. I enjoyed having an excuse to stare for a couple of hours at Balog’s photo. It’s fascinating to me that the colors are so limited: a few blues, a bit of purple and that’s it. A perfectly minimalist landscape at the top of the world.

4 thoughts on “Glaciers are the canary in the global coalmine and oh what a song

  1. I’m so grateful for your fine artwork and commentary on this gripping documentary! You truly are an example of how we need to get beyond debate and engage different parts of our brains and our hearts – places where needed transformation may take place.

    Your painting made me recall the image of Earth-rise from the moon and other images of Earth from space, that have had so much influence on our collective psyche.

  2. Jim — thank you so much for your enthusiasm and comments. This is, indeed, power stuff. I was very moved by Balog’s insight about being outside at night – how in those landscapes where the stars are visible, it’s possible to feel more of our animal soul. It is a wonder that such places still do exist – and a blessing.

  3. Julie, Great seeing you last night. Am finally catching up on your blogs. You were right, this one is very, very special. Thank you so very much for your art and your insights – going all the way back to GOForChange.
    Enjoy, Jack

  4. You too, Jack! That event made me feel great about Baltimore! So much good energy in that room. Thank you for your comments; it’s always great to hear from you.

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