On the Rocks 

James Balog launched the Extreme Ice Survey to photograph melting glaciers from Glacier National Park to Greenland. He got the images, but now comes the hard part.

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click to enlarge The surface area of Glacier National Park’s Sperry Glacier has decreased 75 percent since 1850, when Glacier National Park featured 150 glaciers. In 1968, global warming had reduced that number to just over 50. By 1998, the park had 27 glaciers; that number remains the official count as of today. Scientists predict the park will be glacier-less by 2030. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE EXTREME ICE SURVEY
  • photos courtesy of the Extreme Ice Survey
  • The surface area of Glacier National Park’s Sperry Glacier has decreased 75 percent since 1850, when Glacier National Park featured 150 glaciers. In 1968, global warming had reduced that number to just over 50. By 1998, the park had 27 glaciers; that number remains the official count as of today. Scientists predict the park will be glacier-less by 2030.

Colorado Springs Independent: You photograph glaciers over time in visually striking places. What do you think are the strengths of using that approach at this point in the Extreme Ice Survey?

Balog: I've been very conscious for several decades when I'm doing these projects that involve challenging, provocative or controversial subjects, and sometimes painful subjects—I've been very conscious that you need to seduce the viewers with some kind of visual point of entry. You've got to seduce them with the pure visual pleasure, or drama, first, and then you embed the story underneath it, so the artistry becomes a way to seduce, to bring people in, to the large story you are trying to tell.

CS Indy: Some people might argue that's a bait-and-switch type of tactic, especially those who think global warming is not true, or it's a natural cycle over which we have no control.

Balog: I don't think it's bait-and-switch, although you could try and apply language to that. In terms of the controversial-ness of the climate change story, I don't see a contradiction there at all. It is critical to everything I am doing to understand that the scientific context—measurable, quantifiable, not based on projections, [but] based on an 850,000-year record of paleoclimates in the ice cores—is critical to understand that nature isn't natural anymore, and that the atmosphere we have created over the past 200 years is an atmosphere that hasn't existed on this planet for way, way longer than civilization has existed.

That is measurable, precise and quantified. That knowledge doesn't come from a bunch of hippie academics in Boulder and East Anglia making stuff up. That has been measured over and over and over again by boots-on-the-ground science, scientists from many, many different countries who've worked on the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. That's the framework on which our pictures are based.

CS Indy: The ice cores go back thousands of years. How do you make that link between what is observable right now and the record contained in those ice cores?

Balog: We've been in the field three years. That's what we can speak to. We're showing the process of ice loss that's happening right now. Of course, that's what we speak to, those three years. But it's anchored in an extremely well-established record of ancient climates that goes back almost a million years. It's unmistakable and irrefutable.

I've had this argument with very hardcore climate skeptics who say it's natural variation. It isn't natural variation, and the climate skeptics have never come up with any explanation for those long-term temperature records.

CS Indy: But every time there's a piece of evidence to the contrary, like news about a temperature record adjustment, everyone says, "Ah, see, they've been deceiving us all along."

Balog: They are poorly informed. I will bluntly say they are poorly informed. They don't know the facts. I said that on CNN to one of the leading, um, let's charitably call them lobbyists, working on the skeptical side. He doesn't know the facts.

CS Indy: Leading climate scientists have been making the argument for years that we need to be cutting emissions. How do you see your work making a difference when both sides seem so entrenched?

Balog: I don't think we have a problem of economics and technology in responding to climate change. We have a problem of perception, because not enough people get the reality of what is happening, and there has been an aggressive pushback by status quo interests to keep people confused, to keep them thinking there's no problem.

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