February 7, 2013

‘Chasing Ice’ is a Haunting and Empowering Must-See Film

Meltwater on surface of Columbia Glacier, Columbia Bay, Alaska, June 20, 2008

Chasing Ice is one of the most disarming and beautiful films I have ever set my eyes upon. The curtains open and you are immediately drawn into the public drama of global climate change.

Figureheads on the news shake fingers at each other, lower their heads in frustration, and scowl at the audience on the other side of the screen. As quickly as they came, they are gone and young Director Jeff Orlowski transforms the theater into a frozen, calm and tranquil biosphere found in Earth’s icy regions.

The notable focus in most films about climate change is on catastrophe and fear in the face of our planet’s unnatural metamorphosis. Chasing Ice treads lightly down that road, instead telling an exciting and humorous personal story about human beings fighting to act on a serious problem. Sometimes risking their lives and health to tell the tale.

National Geographic Photographer James Balog is the star of Chasing Ice and he is literally chasing ice with a series of high-tech cameras stationed around the globe. As a previous climate change skeptic, Balong decided to investigate the phenomenon and was transformed by his findings. He was not alone in his realization.

When Orlowski began shooting, Chasing Ice was all about Balog and his ferocious dedication to capture and preserve the planet’s glaciers through a camera lens. After rolling, seeing became believing and the warming planet began to dominate the narrative.

“We looked at eachother one day and said, ‘This is a film about climate change,’” Producer Paula DuPré Pesmen told the audience at Waimea Ocean Film Festival in January.


Living and 'dead' ice flowing from the great icecap, Vatnajokull, in Iceland. Photo: James Balog

Living and ‘dead’ ice flowing from the great icecap, Vatnajokull, in Iceland.
Photo: James Balog

Chasing Ice generates strong emotions. No one dies, hardly anyone gets hurt, no hearts are broken (although Balog almost goes to the dark side when something goes majorly wrong during his first year into the project), but you could find yourself mouth agape and on the verge of tears.

Orlowski is careful in his presentation of Balog’s mesmerizing time-lapse shots, slowly revealing more of their drama as the tale moves forward. His ability to build an intense plot around one of the slowest moving forms on our planet is a testament to his natural skill as a filmmaker – he was 26 when he began following Balog.

The climax comes when the largest calving event – or shearing of ice mass from a glacier – ever witnessed or recorded by a human being occurs while Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) crew members are in observance.

The scene is shown several times from numerous angles, because no single shot could possibly capture it. Nor could words. The scene is accompanied by the tremendous pounding of shattering ice. An animation displays the disaster’s enormity by transposing Manhattan over the gigantic dying glacier.

The climax of Chasing Ice may take your breath away. If you are sitting with a child, you may even grab their hand, in fear that you and the entire theatre might too crash into the icy ocean and be lost.

While grapsing a tiny memory card, Balog talks about the emotional affects of knowing that his digital photographs are the final remaining legacy of deceased glaciers. Choked in his realization, he stares into an abyss off screen.


Adam LeWinter, Jeff Orlowski, James Balog of the Extreme Ice Survey at Columbia Glacier, Alaska. Photo: Chasing Ice

Adam LeWinter, Jeff Orlowski, James Balog of the Extreme Ice Survey at Columbia Glacier, Alaska posing before one of the cameras taking time-lapse photographs
shown in Chasing Ice.
Photo: James Balog


People around the country are reporting that the film has deeply impacted their understanding of climate change and their willingness to help solve the problem.

One viral video on YouTube captured a conservative woman, who attended a Chasing Ice viewing, passionately describing its impact on her.

At my viewing of the film, Orlowski said he received an email from her that was also addressed to all her friends. In it, she apologized for her denial and encouraged them to seek more information. Orlowski commented that similar emails were frequent from viewers.

“People often ask, ‘What’s the tipping point, when is it really going to matter?’ That’s like asking, ‘What’s the last possible cigarette I can smoke before getting cancer?’” Orlowski reflected during a Q&A session I attended.

I spoke with Orlowski and complimented his analogy for also making the connection between Big Tobacco’s denial of carcinogenic dangers and Big Oil/Coal’s denial of climate change.

“The lobbyists are the same guys,” Orlowski replied, referring to Frederick Seitz and Singer, while citing Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt for further exploration of the topic.

While the film’s creative team does not deny the threat of major natural disasters and their presence already in the world, they focus on the relationships formed within the EIS team, the children motivating them at home, and the public health threats they view as their cause.

“I don’t know what you can do, I don’t know what your skill set is,” answered Orlowski when asked how individuals could solve the problem. “You might be an electrical engineer working on solar panels or you might be somebody who has skill sets in social media, or skill sets in different areas. I would challenge everybody and say if there’s something you can do to make a difference with this, then it’s just a matter of figuring out what that might be.”


Forty million americans are actively seeking to solve climate change, says Anthony Leiserowitz. Photo: Bill Moyers

Forty million americans are actively seeking to solve climate change, says Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Photo: Bill Moyers

If you think you cannot make a difference on the issue, you have not done your homework. Artists, scientists, business executives, and the blue collar workers of the world all have an impact.

When you forget to turn off lights in your home, it matters. When you leave your car running while a friend runs into a store for five minutes, it matters. When you don’t repair your catalytic converter, it matters. When you litter, it matters.

Each of us has been a part of the problem and each of us can just as easily be part of the solution.

We can build green, ride bikes, take public transportation, carpool, recycle, install water barrels and continue to educate ourselves about climate-related problems and discussions. We can write government representatives and encourage our schools and communities to take a stand.

You are not alone, you are powerful.

“You’ve got to be organized,” Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, recently told Bill Moyers. “People who are very concerned and think this is an urgent problem… they say, ‘I feel this way, some of my friends and family feel this strongly.’ But they have no sense that they’re part of over 40 million Americans that feel just as strongly as they do.”


Humanity and the environment are inseparable. Photo: James Balog

Chasing Ice demonstrates that
humanity and the environment are inseparable.
Photo: James Balog

In the end, climate change mitigation is not just about the environment, it also addresses economic problems by creating new markets and rewarding, technical jobs.

Renewable energy lowers the cost of living by lessening the need to buy expensive gasoline and dirty electricity. Agricultural improvements lower health costs by making our food safer, our lungs cleaner, and our water more sanitary.

Climate change solutions also encourage a focus on community and conscious decision making. When you consider your choices and actively make better ones you are being more mindful of the world around you. You become more fully engaged in the present moment.

You may even grow more grateful for your access to public water and electricity, realizing that there are billions of individuals around the world without either.

Laws, rules, politicians, teachers, and bureaucrats could tell us what to think or force us to act differently – but who would want to live in such a world?

When change comes from within our communities we empower ourselves to be better, stronger, and more proud of our lives. Small and local changes affect the people around you and the spaces near your home. In turn, they inspire others to follow in your footsteps.

What example will you set, what world will you leave behind for the next generation?

Chasing Ice can be seen in theaters and at film festivals around the world. You can also apply to host a viewing locally. It’s closing song ‘Before My Time’ has been nominated for an Academy Award. Find out more on the official website, where you can also calculate your carbon footprint and learn more about global climate change.

Photo (Featured image): Meltwater on surface of Columbia Glacier, Columbia Bay, Alaska, June 20, 2008. Photo: James Balog

About the Author

Karyn Boenker
Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She writes human interest stories while traveling the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.