There is a scene in the documentary “Chasing Ice” that shows the edge of the massive Ilulissat glacier in Greenland collapsing — or “calving” — and violently crashing into the sea below. The piece of ice that breaks away is compared to the size of lower Manhattan and appears taller than any building there.
The video of the glacier, also called by its Danish name, Jakobshavn, is what photographer James Balog calls “irrefutable” evidence of climate change. Balog is the subject of “Chasing Ice,” which won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski followed Balog as he set up more than 20 time-lapse cameras in remote locations around Alaska, Montana, Nepal, Iceland and Greenland to capture images of Arctic glaciers as they change. Balog designed each camera to withstand extreme conditions, including sub-zero temperatures and 150 mph winds, and to snap about 8,000 frames a year, some of which have been featured in National Geographic magazine.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Orlowski and Balog talked about the film and their experiences making it.
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AP: Climate change did not come up during any of the three presidential debates. Do you regret not releasing the film earlier?
Orlwoski: It’s been turned into a political issue but it shouldn’t be. We were considering releasing it before the election but that would have associated the film with a very specific political agenda and we’re trying to stay a little bit more neutral in that regard.
AP: Talk about the technical challenges you faced.
Balog: I had a number of electronic engineers that were advising and consulting on this thing and these are guys who have been involved with sending equipment to Mars, sending things to the bottom of the ocean, sending remote equipment across Antarctica on these little wheeled contraptions going across the ice, and in the end they said, “We can’t calculate what you need. We can’t figure it out just by bench-testing and mathematical formulas. All you can really do is build something and put it out there and see if it works.”
AP: What was it like watching the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland come apart?
Orlowski: There’s a juxtaposition of emotions that you feel. When you’re out there with the camera, you’re really excited to capture that and you want that to happen so you can record it and document it, but when you look back at the footage you realize how horrific the story is and what it’s actually telling.
AP: James, you were once a climate change skeptic. Were you as skeptical as Sean Hannity?
Balog: Nooo, no no no. Let’s not overstate that. No. Look, 25 years ago I thought that maybe there was a lot of hyperbole around this. I thought that the science was based on computer models which I knew at the time were relatively sketchy. Computer models are quite good now. Also like almost everybody else on this planet back then, it never occurred to me that humans were capable of altering the basic physics and chemistry of the planet.
AP: Why do you think this film might have a different impact than other climate change documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth”?
Orlowski: What James has been able to accomplish is taking this invisible subject matter of climate change and making it visual, making it emotional and so people can see it for the first time and when you can see it, you understand it in a different way.
“Chasing Ice” will be screened during Penn State’s Polar Day at noon April 6. Polar Day will run from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. April 6 at Osmond Laboratory. Visit www.chasing ice.com or www.polar.psu.edu for more information.