The Earth’s glaciers are dying – and not at a pace that was once called glacial. Global warming is causing the ice to melt at an ever-increasing rate, and the consequences are already changing the shape of life on this planet. Most scientists predict that over the next few decades hundreds of millions of people around the globe who live in low-lying areas near water will be displaced by the oceans’ rising volume. This documentary likens the situation to canaries in the coal mines: the harbingers of the geological devastation to come.
Daredevil National Geographic photographer James Balog decided that pictures might be worth more than words in sounding the alarm. He devised an ingenious study called the Extreme Ice Survey in which cameras were stationed at fixed locations in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and Montana, and programmed to take time-lapse pictures of the glaciers before them. The findings were astonishing. After three years, the glacial panoramas in most of these locations had melted to such a degree that they were unrecognizable. There had been a two-and-a-half-mile retreat over the course of three years. Even more alarming is the evidence that the rate is increasing: Over the last 10 years, the glaciers have retreated further than they had in the previous 100 years.
The images captured by Balog and his team are revelatory. As startling as the before and after pictures are, there is also a great beauty to the images. Even though Chasing Ice is probably wise to have made Balog – a human being rather than a large swath of ice – the focus of the film, I could have done with less focus on the individual. Balog has risked life and limb (he has had multiple surgeries on one knee) in his quest, and has courted danger many times over in the process of putting the most delicate electronics in the harshest environments. Of course, there’s the constant fundraising that the task entails, too, as well as the family sacrifices that must be made. And for an extra kick of pop appeal, Scarlett Johansson croons the movie’s theme song over the closing credits. Still, if all this helps sound the alarm, so be it. If seeing equals believing, then this film’s documentation ought to sway the world. But daredevil heroes and sexy screen goddesses probably help the medicine go down.