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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Now I can't speak for my society, but I can speak for me, and I want to be able to say to those kids, with a straight face, I saw what was happening, I knew what it meant, and I did the best that I could to communicate the reality of that.

I do think that the future is going to look back on the naysayers and judge them in a very harsh light. I think it's somewhere between unethical and criminal, with maybe immoral in between, because the evidence—for God's sake, the evidence—is so compelling and so powerful, and they're so unwilling to look at the clear-cut information that is so well understood by thousands and thousands of researchers from around the world. I think, 25, 50 or 100 years from now, the future is going to look back at this foot-dragging and denial and say, "What were you guys thinking of? How could you be so goddamned indifferent? How could you not have been paying attention?"

Now, I went off on a tangent. What did you ask me?

CS Indy: Has it been dangerous...

Balog: Oh, yes. We've been hit by rockfall. We almost went down in the very, very cold water of the North Atlantic when a helicopter started to fail. We managed to get back to the airstrip before we went down. And you'd die. You go in that water, you'll be incapacitated within a few minutes because it's so cold, and you'd be dead in 10 minutes.

We do a lot of very serious technical ice climbing in very dangerous circumstances. We had one camera that was hit by a rock fall...At that same site, one of the field guys and I got hit by rockfall that came down. We had helmets on, and fortunately none of the rocks were big. We got a little bruised up on the shoulders and arms. I've basically destroyed one of my knees in the course of this field work. I'm on the second surgery in three years.

CS Indy: How do you spend your days? Is a lot of it just funding these operations?

Balog: Here, it's almost the end of January, and I haven't been in the field since early September. I have spent all the time between early September and now either doing outreach—that is, giving speeches, telling the story that the glaciers are telling—or raising money, or frequently both.

Between Aug. 20 and Dec. 20, I was traveling every week except one. Which sounds good to most people until you do it, and then you realize what a brain drain it is, what a drain on your body it is. The fragmentation of your existence is just unbearable. My life was nothing but packing and unpacking suitcases. It got to the point in early November where I was so tired of getting up one Sunday morning to go on an early flight to give a speech in Mexico. I remember being in the car, I'd had a cup of coffee, and I said, "Jim, you just may actually be so tired, your body is just going to stop." I have never been so depleted in my life.

CS Indy: What's the immediate future for the project? How many cameras do you have out now?

Balog: Thirty-three are out right now, in Alaska, Montana, Greenland and Iceland. We're gonna put two in British Columbia, Canada, in the next couple months. We're probably putting six around Mount Everest in March, maybe eight. I'm hoping, if my knee recovers from this injection cycle, that I'm going to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in September to camp up there for a week and photograph the ice, because that ice won't be there in 50 years or so. Maybe 100, I don't know. But that ice is not long for this world. We won't do time-lapse cameras up there but I just want to go shoot some frames.

We're probably, aside from Everest and British Columbia, we're probably nearly done with putting out ice-based time-lapse cameras, but what we are doing now is expanding EIS to look at other subjects that aren't just about ice but they're about the world changing in this era of human impact on the planet.

We've got a big project coming down the pike on the extinction of some penguin colonies in Antarctica. We have a project on melting permafrost and the release of methane from the tundra in Alaska. We also have something we're working on in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico that speaks about a drought in ancient Mayan times and how that impacted the fall of Mayan civilization.

We also are very interested in the changing forest cover in the Rocky Mountains. There's, as you know, the pine beetle, [which] is all part of a much bigger story that reaches all the way up into Canada.

We intend to keep the ice cameras going more or less indefinitely now. Originally, the cameras were supposed to be out of the field by now but we've become committed to the idea that we've got such a breathtaking historical record, we've got to keep going, we can't stop. We owe it to the future, to show them what happened.

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