Walking into the warmth of the School 3 Lecture Theatre on Monday evening, I was faced with a motley amalgamation of people, perhaps the most heterogeneous group I had seen since arriving in St. Andrews. Students of all years and subjects filled the seats, as well as older residents of St. Andrews; I found an empty place next to an amicable elderly woman, who granted me a warm smile as I settled in beside her. Chatter in various languages echoed around the room, slowly fading as a young, wiry figure approached the podium at the front of the room. He introduced himself as Simon, the director of the Take One Action! Film Festival, an event sponsored by the Take One Action! Project, which describes itself as “Scotland’s global citizen’s cinema project.” The project, says Simon, “celebrates films and filmmakers that change the world – that link us together.” The initiative serves to increase awareness about pertinent global issues through film, and inspire action among young audiences with powerful cinematography. Today’s documentary was “Chasing Ice”, the acclaimed depiction of one photographer’s mission to document global warming in action. The movie, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows National Geographic photographer James Balog in his quest to photograph the receding glaciers in locations such as Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska.
It began with disaster. Natural calamities, such as raging forest fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, have recently plagued humanity, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. 2011 was the most expensive year for weather ever recorded, in terms of relief funding and property lost. After a montage of newsreels showing unmitigated natural force, the film’s protagonist, James Balog, appears, and the audience is taken on his journey across frozen tundra in search of concrete evidence for climate change. The photography is astounding – even if you are not passionate about environmental issues, I would recommend this film for the sheer aesthetic appeal of Balog’s pictures. Balog himself acknowledges the majesty of his photographic subjects – each glacier is a “limitless universe of form – insanely, ridiculously beautiful.” His initial focus is the Solheim Glacier in Iceland, which is currently receding at the rate of 100 feet per year due to the unprecedentedly deleterious effects of greenhouse gases. In order to properly document this recession, as well as that of other glaciers around the world, Balog began the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which originally consisted of placing twenty-five cameras in glacier-filled areas for three years, during which they would periodically take pictures to record the decline of the glacier.
The results were astounding. Hundreds upon thousands of photographs were turned into stop-motion films, providing incontrovertible proof of the drastic effects of global warming. The movie shows glaciers receding in a matter of seconds, right before the audience’s eyes—great hulking masses of ice reduced to small bergs bobbing on a lake. Balog continuously personifies the glaciers – they do not recede, they “die.” Watching the calving of a glacier – a process in which giant pieces of said glacier fall into the ocean – is like “[seeing] an old decrepit man falling into the Earth and dying.” It is a powerful sight. The effect of the imagery is compounded by the frequent citation of statistics – for example, it is estimated that in a few dozen years, the ocean level will rise 1.5 to 3 feet and displace approximately 150 million people. At face value it seems unrealistic, but considering the epic hurricanes and devastating floods of the past decade, it is undoubtedly true.
The movie did not provide any suggestions on how to remediate the deterioration of the glaciers. It was not normative; it merely showed the state of the world, and implicitly challenged the audience to find ways to fix it. It was not sententious, or reprimanding, as other environmental documentaries are – it was thought provoking and almost heartbreakingly beautiful. To see the extent of climate change, to witness the quiet and unceremonious disappearance of so much natural beauty – it confirms that global warming is not, as Al Gore once said, merely an “inconvenient truth”: it is a dangerous reality.