James Balog was chasing ice.
And Jeff Orlowski was chasing Balog.
What resulted was a film — part an environmental treatise, part an adventure tale — that has been racking up awards at film festivals around the world.
Locally, “Chasing Ice” has been shown at the Ritz at the Bourse and various environmental groups in the area - Sierra Clubs, the Science Film Festival in Philly, Colonial Theater in Phoenixville.
On Friday, it’s being shown at the Peace Center of Delaware County’s First Friday film series. It will begin at 7 p.m. at 1001 Old Sproul Road, Springfield. The doors open at 6:30, and there will be a discussion afterward.
If you miss that, it was recently released on DVD.
Balog is an environmental photographer who wanted to document the world’s disappearing glaciers. He wound up launching the Extreme Ice Survey, a project that involved setting up 30 time-lapse cameras across three continents.
They trekked across boulder-strewn fields and ice sheets. They experienced howling winds and freezing temperatures.
The equipment failed. They adapted and replaced it. The work went on.
Meanwhile, through a mutual friend, Orlowski became familiar with the project. Initially, Balog didn’t want a film to be made, but Orlowski persisted.
“The story was so compelling,” Orlowski told me recently. “At first we started filming for an archive … but every trip we went on” turned up something exciting. As in: glaciers calving spectacularly. “It was obvious we had to turn it into a movie.”
Eventually, they brought editors, writers and producers.
First, though, they made it a story about Balof. Post-Al Gore, there were so many environmental movies. “Really great films. We didn’t think we could do anything powerful about the climate change space,” he said.
But viewer groups wanted more ice. So the Extreme Ice Survey became the central story.
The photography is jaw-dropping - even on my 32-inch TV, I was agape.
With the time-lapse photos assembled into a kind of film, the reteat of the glaciers is dramatic. Not to mention exceedingly worrisome.
If you want to be awed by beauty and scared by the implications all at once, this is the movie for you.
I wanted more science, however. Any glacier can calve. How much of it would be due to climate change? How was it being measured and compared to other possible factors?
Orlowski said keeping the science to a minimum was the plan.
“One of the things that we really had to figure out with that was we wanted the film to be engaging and captivating, and not be overwhelming with statistics and and information,” he said. So they put in as little science as they thought they could, then added more when questions were raised at screenings, but kept it to a minimum.
“Honestly, the goal was to use as little science as possible, to communicate the story visually,” he said.
So, for those who want more information, I called the U.S. Geological Survey. Alas, their main glacier site is under construction and won’t be ready until spring.
But here’s a USGS blog item about glaciers, which with some rare exceptions are retreating more quickly than ever.
And here’s a summary of research in our own Glacier National Park in the Rockies.
Matt Larsen, the USGS associate director for climate and land-use research, had this to say about glaciers: "Evidence from a wide range of satellite and field observations over the last 30 years shows that nearly all non-polar glaciers and many polar glaciers are in retreat, and that the extent of global snowpack, global permafrost, and Arctic sea ice are decreasing.
“That these worldwide phenomenon can be readily observed by a non-specialist without any sophisticated data processing or image enhancement is strong evidence that our rapidly warming planet is causing major changes in one of the key Earth systems, the cryosphere,” he wrote in an email.
For Orlowski’s team, they were all “blown away by how quickly the glaciers are changing,” he said.
“The more time I spent around the science, and understanding what is happening, from these amazing thorough, detail-oriented scientists… it was all confirming. We are changing the very fundamental nature of nature,” said Orlowski, who has since transformed many aspects of his life to lessen his environmental footprint.
“We are embarking on a very significant change to what planet earth is going to look like over next few decades.”