Serving as Witness to Environmental Change © James Balog

Serving as Witness to Environmental Change

The world is seeing gargantuan change the likes of which people haven’t experienced since the dawn of agriculture 8,000 years ago. Changing temperatures, rapid loss of ice and snow in arctic and alpine regions, water and drought stress, increased forest fires, and the loss of plant and animal species are no longer due to natural forces alone – and are certainly not the result of natural variation. Current conditions on spaceship Earth are increasingly the product of humankind’s world-altering pressures to sustain lifestyles, access natural resources and make room for our ever-expanding population.

Understanding these interactions and the human roles in them is central to my work as a conservation photographer. I strive to use both art and science to engage policymakers, connect with the public and do what I can to help forge a better future for our planet.

 © James Balog

© James Balog

I have long been driven by the wonder of how the world works. In July 1976, a massive thunderstorm sent a flash flood through the Big Thompson River canyon, a deep gorge carved into the Front Range of Colorado. The flood careened down the narrow canyon, effectively ripping rocks and trees from the mountainsides and killing 146 people. Some ravines looked as though the hand of a giant had scooped away large chunks of earth while others appeared untouched. I wondered why some mountains moved and others didn’t. It gave me an overwhelming sense of nature’s power. And the flood became the subject of my master’s thesis in physical geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

I was soon embedded in the world of science, of numbers and analysis and mapping. Science gave me a new lens through which to see the world, and that perspective still informs my photographic work today. But, something was missing in the numbers – a more holistic view and appreciation of the natural environment. Once my degree was finished, I shifted my focus away from science and number crunching into photographic arts.

From early on in my career, I envisioned myself doing National Geographic-style work; but, it took many years to move my way up the ranks. I started by doing speculative and assignment work on adventure sports and earth science for magazines like Mariah (the predecessor to Outside), Smithsonian and Time. National Geographic came later. I covered everything from avalanche control to oil shale development to the scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. In 1980, called by the rumbles of Mount St. Helens, I headed to Washington State. I spent weeks exploring the volcano before and after eruption. I flew over the volcano whenever I could wrangle a pilot and kept photographic tabs on the mountain as pressure mounted both within the volcano and the surrounding community. Here, just as with the Big Thompson, the Earth was changing with a force and magnitude difficult to fathom.

Today, I devote myself entirely to self-directed projects such as the Survivor series on global endangered wildlife or to creative interpretation of America’s old-growth forests. No matter the endeavor, a feeling of responsibility to the world around me drives the work. This awareness has inspired my most ambitious project to date – the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) – which I initiated in late 2006. Climate change is causing dramatic alterations in many places, but it often occurs in ways that are hard for the human eye or mind to comprehend. In glacial environments, however, we can see, touch and hear climate change in action.

Our EIS team has placed time-lapse cameras at the edges of glaciers to document whether they are healthy and advancing or reacting to climatic variables and retreating. Thus far, we have installed 35 cameras at 18 locations in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. These cameras take a picture of the glaciers once every 30 or 60 minutes as long as it’s daytime. Then, we merge the single framed images into movies that speed up years of glacial movement into a few minutes.

Our team includes scientists, videographers and extreme-weather expedition professionals. We have amassed an archive of more than 500,000 photographs and produced dozens of stunning videos. These visualizations provide the general public with compelling, engaging, spectacular evidence of climate change in action. Glacier and atmospheric scientists also use the material both in basic research and in their own public outreach.


 © James Balog

© James Balog|Switzerland, Rhone Glacier

Once a tourist attraction for its reach into the Rhone River, the Rhone Glacier may attract another kind of tourist in the future: boaters. The glacier is now melting and forming a lake at its base. Experts estimate that most of the glaciers in Switzerland, like this one, will be gone by 2100 A.D. if the melting rate continues at the current pace of three percent per year.

I am currently expanding beyond glaciers to build a home for globally conscious environmental image-making. To that end, I founded the Earth Vision Trust (EVT) in summer 2010. At EVT, we combine art and science to explore our changing planet, preserve its memory for future generations and inspire social action now.

Around much of the world, the natural environment we see today is profoundly different from what people experienced just a few generations ago. Similarly, much of what we see now will vanish in centuries to come. EVT combines still photographs, video and film with the written word and other media to preserve a visual record of fast-changing landscapes and critically endangered plants and animals.

We plan to disseminate this record by using the internet, electronic and print media, public presentations and educational resources created for classroom use. We are taking a creative look at an array of human-environmental processes, such as the Gulf oil spill, endangered species and the intersection of humans and technology. As EVT grows, we hope that it will give voice to collaborators in a wide range of creative and scientific fields.

Photography is a tool with the power to inform and emote. It makes the passage of time, the impact of humanity and the processes of life tangible. It’s a form of visual evidence with tremendous potential for influencing human perception of the world. I’ve believed for a long time that photographers and filmmakers are the antennae of civilization, an integral sensory mechanism of human culture. We feel our way through the darkness trying to see what’s around us and trying to reveal that which hasn’t been revealed before. The challenge can be enormous if not overwhelming. Yet the rewards, when the quest is successful, make it all worthwhile.

 © James Balog|Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland

© James Balog|Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland

The Ilulissat Glacier puts more ice into the global ocean than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. Here, tidal currents carry icebergs into Disko Bay and out to the North Atlantic Ocean. The pool of icewater seen in this shot will make its own contribution to the slow, incremental rise of global sea level. July 2006.

Jim Balog’s Extreme Ice Slideshow