Chasing Ice begins with footage of recent natural disasters—floods, wildfires, tornadoes, and droughts—occurring all over the world. A week after hurricane Sandy, though, many Americans will need little reminder of the devastation that nature can cause, or of the growing number of natural calamities that keep hitting cities and regions previously spared from such events. “Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo a day after Sandy hit the northeast. If you need it, the doc offers a devastating, and often beautifully shot, reality check.
In 2007, nature photographer James Balog and a team of engineers and scientists began setting up cameras at glaciers in Greenland, Alaska, and Montana. Over the course of several years, the cameras took pictures that documented the slow but significant melting taking place. Balog used the results to produce a series of time-lapse videos in which the glaciers look like ice cubes rinsing under hot water. When combined with other before-and-after photographs, the dramatic nature of climate change becomes exceedingly clear. In just over 20 years, one of the glaciers shown in the film has shrunk by 1,200 feet—about the size of the Empire State Building.
Balog’s photography and director Jeff Orlowski’s cinematography also capture the often ferocious beauty of the arctic landscape. The documentary’s most memorable moment comes courtesy of two members of Balog’s team who camped out for days waiting for a glacier to calve (the term used for when a large chunk of ice breaks off a glacier and falls into the sea). What we eventually witness is one of the biggest calving events ever recorded. It’s the equivalent, as the film describes it, of watching lower Manhattan break off and crash into the water, though the image more resembles a lower-Manhattan-sized monster writhing and pounding before settling into the sea. It’s too much for the camera to capture completely, but when shown at length with no background score, those limitations actually emphasize the magnitude of the event on screen.
The film lags when it focuses on Balog, though the project leader certainly comes off as a determined figure. Shortly after his fourth knee surgery, and strictly against doctor’s orders, he insists on hiking to one of the glaciers on two crutches in order to check on camera footage. Balog clearly believes his work can help raise awareness, but frustration also emerges when he observes how, centuries after Darwin, “we’re still arguing about evolution.” That doesn’t leave much hope for fixing climate change in time to save the planet.
That frustration hangs in the air throughout the film, especially because Orlowski bookends it with footage of adamant naysayers of climate change. Recent statements from Cuomo and Michael Bloomberg demanding immediate attention to the problem are great to hear, though it seems like only repeated disasters close to home will make climate change a real political issue. At one point, Balog, a former skeptic himself, says that “if I hadn’t seen it in the pictures, I wouldn’t believe it at all.” For some people, you fear, no picture or video will ever be enough.