January 28, 2015

"Chasing Ice": The Tragic Sublime

Meltwater on surface of Columbia Glacier, Alaska, June 20, 2008 (detail)
All photographs are by James Balog and are from the following three sites:

The word "sublime" has become a commonplace––"oh, that pie is sublime!"––but to philosophers of aesthetics and to 19th century landscape painters the concept included horror. To Kant (I quote from the Wikipedia link on the sublime) it included "the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying". For Schopenhauer beauty was pleasure in seeing a benign object, while the sublime was seeing "an overpowering or vast malignant object of great magnitude, one that could destroy the observer." It seems to me that nothing could express this idea of the sublime better than the icy regions of the globe, terrifying in their grandeur. These regions of glaciers and frost are now also frightening to contemplate, in that they are giving us disastrous news about the state of our planet.

Lindblad Cove, Antartica, January 11, 2011

James Balog, a photographer concerned with environmental issues, went to the Arctic to photograph glaciers on assignment for National Geographic. He was so struck by the evidence of climate change there that he made it his mission to document the changes happening, much too rapidly, to the world's glaciers. From this idea came the Extreme Ice Survey, and Chasing Ice, a stunning documentary about this important project; you can see the film on Netflix. Thanks to my friend, the artist and very concerned citizen, Ravenna Taylor, for alerting me to this beautiful and horrifying film. The beauty of these places is astounding, surprising; Balog's eye for pictorial drama makes the story so much more compelling.

Jokulsarlon, Iceland, "Icebergs that originated in the vast expanse of the Vatnajokull decay and melt in a tidal lagoon." March 4, 2005

Balog began the Extreme Ice Survey in 2007 to document the changes in glaciers over several years. There were many technical challenges in setting up cameras in severe climates that would automatically photograph the views in front of them over months. You can see some of the videos made by time-lapse techniques at the Extreme Ice Survey link above. They clearly show glaciers in retreat.

Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland. "A helicopter flying past a half-mile wide section of the Ilulissat Glacier calving face gives perspective on the staggering immensity of this ice wall (in some places it may be 70 stories tall)."

The enormous size of the glaciers seems boundless, immutable. But in fact, although glaciers always retreated a bit during summer and reformed during winter, now they are simply in retreat.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland, August 24, 2007

Icebergs are pieces of a glacier that have broken off and floated out to sea.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland. "Icebergs that have rolled over and been scalloped by waves metamorphose into fantastic shapes." August 24, 2007.

This has always happened, but the rate at which it is now occurring is much faster than in the past. In the film Chasing Ice, we see an entire wall of a glacier collapse, an astounding sight.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland; Iceberg, July 17, 2007.

The fabulous forms of ice are wondrous and like nothing else. I can understand why artists such as Frederic Church in the 19th century went to the Arctic to paint icebergs:

Frederic Church, The Icebergs, 1861; oil on canvas, 64.5 x 112.5 in.

Svinafellsjokull Glacier, Iceland. "...a massive landscape of crevasses". February 12, 2008. (detail)

The intense blue of some of the ice is a marvel....

Greenland Ice Sheet, "Adam LeWinter surveys Birthday Canyon". June 28, 2009.

....as is the tremendous size and dwarfing scale of glaciers and ice sheets. They are among the great wonders of the earth, and they are surely disappearing due to our actions, and to our inaction about climate change.

Greenland Ice Sheet, "Bubbles of ancient air, possibly 15,000 years old, are released as the ice sheet melts." July 14, 2008.

The Greenland ice sheet is littered with dark holes in its surface, holes that attract more and more heat, and that release eons-old air from its depths. It is melting at a rate of 47 cubic miles per year. If the entire sheet of ice melted, sea levels would rise 24 feet, but that would likely take hundreds of years, though there is disagreement about it among scientists (see the link). It is clear, though, that even moderate melting would not be a good thing. James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey are performing a great public service in making us aware, by luring us with beauty, of the danger that comes with it.


  1. Altoon, i'm so glad you saw the film and decided to apply your eloquent voice to the work of James Balog, thank you!

    1. Thank you, Ravenna, for telling me about this film; such important work.

  2. He has an eye for pictorial drama indeed, these are stunning!

    1. Aren't they? Great photos put to such good use, a strong wakeup to us all.

  3. Great post on so many levels: thank you.