Iced up Imagery

With there being some snow around (although not much in Aberystwyth), along with a flurry (sorry!) of documentaries popping up featuring one hell of a lot of ice, I thought I’d start a little series of posts about the ones I’ve been watching.

First up: Chasing Ice

If you haven’t heard about this one, it’s a documentary about the Extreme Ice Survey, a time-lapse photography project led by James Balog. About 30 cameras were installed (no mean feat!) to take time lapses of glaciers in the Arctic. That climate change is happening, is not something I need much convincing of.  One can easily point to the many many variables this visual imagery cannot take into account (despite media headlines of course of ‘irrefutable truths’ etc). Nonetheless the retreat of the glaciers these cameras record, over just a few years, is quite staggering.  Yes, this was over a short time period, but for me, watching such massive chunks of ice calving off into the sea and thinking about the long term trends and predictions at the same time, made for some scary and quite emotional viewing. Which, I presume is the main point of the project: giving people something  real and happening to visualise when scientists talk of sea level rise, melting ice caps.


EIS field assistant, Adam LeWinter on NE rim of Birthday Canyon, atop feature called “Moab”. Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2009. Black deposit in bottom of channel is cryoconite. Birthday Canyon is approximately 150 feet deep. Photograph by James Balog, © 2009 James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey.
James Balog believed when he started the project, that the climate change ‘story’ was ‘in the ice’. I think there is something in that. The stunning photography of the ice forms and watching the man’s obsession with getting them also perhaps frames the ice as having a beauty to it: simultaneously powerful, dangerous, and fragile. In this way, perhaps the ice itself becomes valued differently and we make different connections between this entity and our own existence on the planet. Maybe this is in part why reviewers call it a ‘game changer’ [1].

At some points of the film I was hankering to see more of the time lapse photos and less of the story of getting them, but it is that very personal story which makes the film poignant and real. Having that story set in the context of archived media reports on climate change works very well to get the message across.


James Balog hangs off cliff by Columbia Glacier, Alaska to install time-lapse camera. Photograph by Tad Pfeffer/Extreme Ice Survey © 2007 Extreme Ice Survey
For me, it has been a while since I felt that pang of total helplessness in the face of such gargantuan ‘natural’ forces and snail paced political and societal change. Again evidence, perhaps the film hit its mark. But how far can apocalyptic narratives go? Helplessness is not renowned for being a good stimulus for political action or individual change (see Foust and Murphy 2009; Feinberg and Willer 2011) .  Yet it is worth acknowledging that such narratives can and do lead some people into action as part of a ‘moral compass’ to guide everyday choices (Veldman 2012). Indeed more often than not it is these narratives I return to when making those little, otherwise inconsequential choices.

It was a shame then, that the after film Q and A session did not acknowledge these reactions and emotions we might be having. What it did was place us firmly back in our seats and within the context of funding budgets and entertaining stories of arctic fieldwork antics.

As far as the PhD project goes, I am left wondering how all this looks and feels to people who live next door to glaciers, where ice is part of the everyday landscape, though I’m sure it can’t be so dramatic 24/7…

Also, I need to get more thermals!

UK screenings of Chasing Ice:

[1] “The term ‘game changer’ barely does the film justice, and the big screen is just the place to see it in all its ominous splendour. ” 4 – Time Out

Feinberg, M., Willer, R. (2011) ‘Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by   Contradicting Just-World Beliefs’, Psychological Science, 22(1), 34–38.

Foust, C.R., Murphy, W.O. (2009) ‘Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse’, Environmental Communication, 3(2), 151–167.

Veldman, R.G. (2012) ‘Narrating the Environmental Apocalypse: How Imagining the End Facilitates Moral Reasoning Among Environmental Activists’, Ethics & the Environment, 17(1), 1–23.

2 thoughts on “Iced up Imagery

  1. Your blog entry opens up that too terrifying hopelessness that for me suffuses almost all of everyday life ‘under capitalism’ – and not only when confronted by the effects of climate change (also the effects of consumerism, non-community, lack of political/social imagination, listlessness…) But then, there are nice and good people, distracting culture (mainly dystopian movies!), a delightful dog to play with and football!

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