Extreme Ice

James Balog descends into in a moulin“It’s a strange, evil, gorgeous, horrible, fantastic place,” calls out photojournalist James Balog as he abseils a short way down into a deep hole in the Greenland ice opened up by surface meltwater rushing down perhaps to bedrock hundreds of metres somewhere below. It’s understandable Balog should have mixed feelings.  The view is stunning. But that rushing meltwater may be lubricating the great ice sheet at its base and hastening the movement of its glaciers to the sea. 

The film which records this moment, Extreme Ice,  is showing on the National Geographic channel on Sky on Wednesday 22 April at 9.30 pm and a couple of times more in succeeding hours. It will also be showing in Australia. I’ve had the opportunity to preview it. I recommend it highly.

Balog’s film is about ice loss. He is the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, a wide-ranging glacier survey  which uses time-lapse photography, conventional photography, and video to document the rapid changes now occuring to the Earth’s glacial ice. The EIS team has 27 time-lapse cameras installed at 15 sites in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains. By shooting one frame every daylight hour over a period of years they are producing a visible record of the glacier retreat in those places, part of the  world-wide retreat of glaciers as global warming takesd hold. 

The film centres first on the great Columbia glacier of Western Alaska. In one year from 2007 to 2008 it retreated a full kilometre. Over the past 30 years it has lost 16 kilometres of its length. Scientists on the spot investigate the way in which surface meltwater pours into cracks in the ice in a fracturing process which hastens the calving at the glacier’s face. Reflection follows on the retreat of mountain glaciers everywhere and the consensus that within the next 50 to 100 years they will disappear completely, adding 30 centimetres to sea level rise and gravely threatening the freshwater supplies of millions of people dependent on glacier meltwater to feed their rivers.

Then it’s across to Greenland, with a brief look at Antarctic ice-sheet break-up on the way. The Greenland focus is on the summer surface meltwater as it seeks ways to move through the ice, gouging river canyons or draining suddenly through cracks and holes deep into the ice below. Balog’s team was fortunate enough to be at the site of one of the summer meltwater lakes when it rapidly disappeared, as they can do, and was able to find the moulin down which so much water had suddenly poured.  It’s an exciting moment in the film. Attention is given to Greenland’s largest outlet glacier, the Jakobshavn.  It is moving at 40 metres a day in summer, twice as fast as a decade ago. The film captures an extraordinary calving event when a portion of the glacier nearly five kilometres wide fell away within an hour. A scientist working there posits a dynamic interaction where the ice meets the sea between the cold top layer of meltwater and the warmer sea water below which results in faster melting. 

Balog is a renowned nature photographer and knows how to capture the majesty and strange beauty of his chosen environment. Yet this one-time sceptic and the scientists with him are well aware of the potentially devastating consequences of what he is filming and there is no equivocation about that.  Seeing is believing.  One hopes some politicians might see it and understand its inescapable conclusions.

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