The Cold Facts Of A Melting Arctic

Receding glacial ice in Greenland; extreme ice survey, global warming, arctic ice, climate change, polar,
Extreme Ice Survey
Arctic explorers have always needed an axe to hack their way through the glacial ice. At least, up to now they have. Whether they'll ALWAYS need such a tool is a little less certain. Here's science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg:

To the human eye, the stark Arctic landscape appears frozen in time. But this environment is actually changing. Through time-lapse photography, one can see the landscape disappear …

Time-lapse pictures, in some sense, are redefining that term "glacial pace," according to photographer James Balog.

"Glacial pace is actually an incorrect concept," he said. "The glaciers move a lot faster and they react a lot faster than people imagine."

Balog is attempting to do what no one else has done before - capture climate change on film as it's happening.

"We have cameras, time lapse cameras, shooting every hour around the clock, as long as it's daylight, in Greenland, Iceland, Montana and Alaska," he said. "Twenty-seven cameras are out there as we speak, and we take all of these images."

That's approximately 4,000 images per camera per year. Putting those pictures together into a time lapse video, Balog says, "shows you what's happening to the glaciers."

Take a walk with him on the ice, and you get a sense he sees things a bit differently.

"There's something peaceful about ice, in some ways," said Sieberg.

"Yeah, it's very serene," Balog said. "You know, it's poised here, just doing its thing. The interaction between temperature and water. And it forms pretty unique patterns. I've never seen anything quite like this actually."

Sieberg caught up with him near his home in Boulder, Colorado, the surrounding terrain itself shaped by the last Ice Age.

"You know, we humans are programmed to think that big changes on the Earth happened a long time ago, or will happen a long time in the future," Balog said. "What we don't realize is that they actually can happen right now. Right here, right now, while we're alive, in our own hours and days and months and years. And that's what this climate change story tells you."

It's a story etched in ice and documented in a new National Geographic book and an upcoming "Nova" special on PBS.

Jim White, director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, studies ice in a room that, Sieberg notes, is not that cold.

"No!" White laughed. "No, as a matter of fact, there's a lot of equipment in here and it heats up."

White says some of the best clues of the Earth's past climate are trapped in the Arctic ice … tiny bubbles of atmospheric gases, hundreds of thousands of years old.

"Is it too simplistic to say that the study of ice is similar to looking at the rings of a tree?" Sieberg asked.

"No, that's actually a pretty apt analogy in itself," White said. "Tree rings, year by year, ice cores, year by year. And there are ice cores where you can actually see those layers. You can pull the ice core up, take a look at it and say, 'Yeah, I can see year by year what's going on here.'"

One of White's most startling findings was discovering a period about 20,000 years ago when the Earth's temperature jumped by about 18 degrees over just 50 years. The cause is still unknown.

He said the implications of that change are "like going from Miami to Montreal in a human lifetime."

It's a climate change 100 times faster than what we've seen in the last 100 years.

While today's pace of climate change isn't happening as fast, according to scientists like White it is accelerating, meaning Balog only has a limited window of time before he's walking on thin ice.

"In the ice you have an understandable, visual, visible evidence of climate change," he said. "And when ice melts, people get that. It's not about computer models. It's not about projections or statistics. Every human being on the planet, all six billion of us, 'get' what melting ice means. So, that's what makes this so powerful."

For more info:

  • View images and time-lapse videos of glacial ice flows at the Extreme Ice Survey Web site
  • "Extreme Ice" (PBS) Debuts Tuesday, March 24; check local listings
  • "Extreme Ice" (National Geographic)
  • Danger Comes Early For Arctic Explorers - Catlin Arctic Survey
  • Dr. James White