Jame Balog: Extreme Ice Study Photo courtesy of AGU Fall Meeting

Jame Balog: Extreme Ice Survey. Photo courtesy of AGU Fall Meeting

The trouble with climate change is that it doesn’t mean much to most folks. Is our planet warming naturally, or is humankind being less kind to mother Earth than we should be? We typically approach these stories with stats and facts, when, as the following documentary proves, pictures are worth a 1,000 words to help us comprehend the impact of global warming.

Last night, I watched the most compelling documentary yet about the effects of climate change (man-made or not) called Chasing Ice. acclaimed environmental photographer, James Balog’s, placed dozens of time-lapse cameras around glaciers in the Arctic to capture their retreat. The individual images are pieced together together to document an alarming loss of ice.

But First the Data

Chart courtesy of the Environmental Defense Fund

Chart courtesy of the Environmental Defense Fund


Overlay his innovative visual essay with data from ice core samples, which are a frozen record of the Earth’s carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and relative planet temperature over millennia, and you experience a documentary that shows us the impacts of a warming planet. What was especially pronounced to me in the segment about the ice core data is that our planet temperature naturally fluctuates, which is evident by the graph. Notice that, over that past 400,000 years, carbon dioxide never naturally elevated to more than 280 parts-per-million. When it increased, so did the temperature. The correlation between the two is obvious.

This data underscores that our planet is a living, breathing organism with natural changes in temperature over time, just like our own bodies. Now take this healthy organism and introduce it to smoking by burning fossils fuels beginning with the industrial age. Just like the tar and nicotine that pollutes a smoker’s body with every puff, we’re spewing carbon dioxide and other toxins into the ecosystem in the same manner. In addition, we are reducing the planet’s CO2-scrubbing ability by pruning its lungs through deforestation.

Now look at where we are relative to carbon dioxide, a so-called “greenhouse gas” in our atmosphere. We’re currently at 380 parts-per-million and climbing; nearly twice what occurs naturally. In the past 100 years, the temperature of the Earth has gone up 1.3 fahrenheit. Those who don’t think we’re having an impact on global warming should take 75 minutes and watch this film.

Turning Data into Drama

Now let’s witness how all of this plays out in a photos captured from the Extreme Ice Survey.

Most climate change experts come at the story of sustainability with lots of technical data and jargon that people just don’t understand. The data is important. It informs the story. But it is not the story. Balog has it right.

“Most of the time, art and science stare at each other over the gulf of mutual incomprehension. There is great confusion when the two look at each other. Art, of course, looks at the world through the psyche, the emotions, the unconsciousness at times, and of course the esthetic. Science tends to look at the world through the rational, the quantitative, things that can be measured and described. It gives art a terrific context for understanding.”

Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, which is the story of sustainability behind the documentary, is dedicated to merging art and science to help us understand nature, and humanity’s relationship to nature. His TEDTalk on the project, and its startling findings, is also well worth a view.

When it comes to storytelling about sustainability, remember that showing is often more compelling than telling.