Capturing a thawing world has left James Balog with mixed feelings, he tells Scott Kara.
James Balog hates to admit it, but when a giant slab of ice breaks off a glacier and smashes into the ocean in front of him it's thrilling stuff.
"You're seeing something that makes your eyes pop out and your jaw drop. It's absolutely staggering. You never lose your sense of awe," says the renowned and intrepid National Geographic photographer, adventurer and climate change campaigner. "But then," he continues, on the phone from his Colorado home in the foothills of the Rockies, "the next emotion is the sense of sadness and horror that this is happening."
Since 2007 Balog has been getting close to some of the world's most remote and at-risk glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska as part of his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) project, which uses 25 time-lapse cameras to create a unique visual image of how fast these areas are receding.
His main objective was to offer conclusive evidence about the radical impact climate change is having on the world - and, given the stunning images he has captured, the other beauty of it is that it's as much an art project as it is scientific research.
And he admits: "My role as an artist is to peel back the blinkers and help us see more clearly."
Balog's EIS work has been documented in Chasing Ice, a feature-length film by director Jeff Orlowski that screens on the National Geographic channel tomorrow at 9.30pm. The film also screened at last year's Auckland International Film Festival and won best cinematography at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
It's hard to believe Balog was a climate change sceptic many years ago. To be fair, it was 20 years ago when there wasn't as much information around - or noise made - about the impact global warming was having on the world.
"It was all based on computer models back then," he says. "I also thought that it was improbable, in fact it never even entered my head, that humans could change the basic physical make-up of the planet. It was simply not on my mental radar."
But in the late 90s, and by now an accomplished photographer who had made a name for himself with his work documenting the "collision between humans and the environment", Balog says he took time to learn more about the extent of temperature fluctuations that the earth had undergone. "Those [fluctuations] were preserved in the empirical evidence, in the physical, measurable evidence in the ice cores of Greenland and Antarctica. That was when I realised climate change was real.
"And then, not very many years later, science came out with the idea that we were in this new era of anthropocene, which suggests that humans are the dominant agent of geologic and biologic evolution on the planet today. And then I realised another part of my sceptical resistance needed to be revised."
As you may have noticed, Balog isn't just a chatty fountain of knowledge, he explains things thoroughly and it stems from how passionate he is about his work. There is a lovely moment in the first half of Chasing Ice where his daughter, Simone, sums up her father's dedication as his "never-ending quest".
"That was very insightful," he says. "And I suppose I have to admit that I've been on some sort of a quest since my late teens, and there was never really any clarity on what the Holy Grail was, there's just been this succession of Holy Grails and trying to eliminate climate change just happens to be the latest of the Grails."
The survey has been quite an undertaking, at a cost of US$3.5million ($4.1 million) which, he points out, is quite a lot for a still camera project.
"Although I really do have to get serious about doing an updated costing," he chuckles.
Then there's the high-tech cameras that have to withstand temperatures of around -40C and 240km/h winds for months on end.
"It's pretty harsh stuff that we're dealing with. And we've come to feel very affectionate about our cameras. They're like our little R2D2 robots, our little friends out there doing our work for us."
Balog is also paying a physical price for traipsing around in some of the most dangerous and desolate places on earth. When TimeOut talks to him he has just got back from "chasing lava in Hawaii", as you do, and he is about to undergo an operation to replace his knee. "The stem cell injections have not been enough to stave off the damage that is continuing in my knee," he says.
The thing about Balog and Chasing Ice, apart from the politically charged beginning of the film that Balog admits he would have quite liked toned down, is that neither rams the issue of climate change down your throat.
"The filmmakers took great pains to simply tell the story," he says. "We don't need to be pounding our fists on the table because what we've done is go out and bear witness to something and experience it. The film shows this and we have a strong and unassailable story."
However, in saying that he's not a barrow-pushing global warming activist; he does take the chance to open up and have a bit of a well-rounded rant when asked why he does all this.
"I believe, with every fibre of my creative being, that we human beings often have misconceptions of the world. Without even realising we inherit all kinds of old concepts and wisdom and ways of seeing things and visions of the way things work. Most of it is pretty good, otherwise humans would not have survived, but there are always belief systems in any given period of time that have been wrong."
He gives the example of slavery. "The entire industrial system of the developed world depended on enslaving human beings for centuries - that was considered a morally and ethically appropriate thing to do. How do you rationalise that? And in a similar sense, the fact the climate is changing, and that globally we are being so slow to accept it, deal with it, and fix the problem, is going to be incomprehensible to the people who come after us.
"The reality is climate change is happening. It's us stealing the climate of the world for our own gratification - and it will probably be looked at as a criminal activity in years to come. That's my wrap on it anyway."
"So for 30 years I've been looking at various aspects about how humans impact on nature and illuminate them artistically in an innovative and creative way. And Chasing Ice comes out of that multi-decade heritage," he says.
Who: James Balog, National Geographic photographer and climate change campaigner
What: Chasing Ice, feature-length documentary about Balog's Extreme Ice Survey
When & where: Sunday, 9.30pm, National Geographic channel