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.

Everything about James Balog cries out, "Extreme."

Not in the X Games, adrenaline-junkie sense of the word, but in the more profound, yin-and-yang kind of way in which opposites make up a whole.

A professional photographer for more than 30 years, Balog has produced a half-dozen beautiful, glossy books about wildlife, forests and other environmental subjects. His work has appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker, Life and Vanity Fair, and photos he shot of melting glaciers around the world became a June 2007 cover story in National Geographic titled "The Big Thaw."

But as a guy with a graduate degree in geomorphology (the study of landforms), the 57-year-old Balog gets more wound up talking about science than art, particularly when the subject is climate change. He believes that the days of arguing whether human activities are causing the earth to get warmer should be over.

click to enlarge James Balog installs “Cliff,” a glacier-watching camera, alongside Alaska’s Columbia Glacier in 2007. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE EXTREME ICE SURVEY

"It's critical to understand that nature isn't natural anymore," he says.

What Balog saw on his National Geographic shoots led him to launch the Extreme Ice Survey. The project now has 33 cameras set up to take hourly pictures at glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Glacier National Park, and the resulting time-lapse images showing rivers of ice receding up valleys or collapsing into ocean inlets tell "the story of the glaciers," in Balog's words. He believes they, along with still images, can connect viewers viscerally to the impacts of fossil fuel consumption.

That is, as long as he can actually put those images in front of people.

So between trips to the glaciers to set up new cameras and download images, Balog spends much of his time raising money or traveling to talk about his work. (While most often in front of general audiences, he's also participated in a congressional briefing on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and attended the Copenhagen climate summit in December.) "Extreme Ice," a NOVA/PBS documentary on the project, carried Balog's work to a wide audience last March. Plagued by knee problems developed in the field, he's trying an experimental procedure involving stem cells so he can stay on his feet and keep up his grueling schedule.

The hectic pace shows as Balog sits down at his office in Boulder, Colo., for an early afternoon interview with the Colorado Springs Independent. Delayed for several minutes by a phone call, he takes out a sandwich at the start of the interview, and prefaces the discussion by saying he hopes to keep it to about 20 minutes.

But as he starts talking, Balog gives in to his passion, describing his hope that people will cut back on their energy use and demand policy changes so that the worst effects of global warming might be avoided. Though he and others working on the project sometimes feel like "rats in an electroshock experiment," as he puts it, he believes his busy schedule attests to the project's success.

An hour later, he breaks off the discussion with apparent reluctance. He has to meet with his bookkeeper. The grind goes on.

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