NOVA "Extreme Ice" on WXXI-TV

NOVA "Extreme Ice" on WXXI-TV

Tue, 02/16/2010 - 8:00pm
Pictured: James Balog, climbing with ice axes down Meltwater Canyon, Interior Ice Sheet, Greenland, and Michael Brown at top, holding the rope.

Credit: Dave Ruddick

NOVA follows the exploits of acclaimed photojournalist James Balog and a scientific team as they deploy time-lapse cameras in risky, remote locations in the Arctic, Alaska and the Alps in order to create a unique photo archive of melting glaciers.

Remarkable time-lapse footage by one of the world’s foremost nature photographers reveals massive glaciers and ice sheets splitting apart, collapsing, and disappearing at a rate that has more and more scientists alarmed. NOVA investigates this latest evidence of a radically warming planet on  NOVA "Extreme Ice", airing Tuesday, February 16 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11).

As the world warms, the threat from rising sea levels poses an alarming potential for disaster. Some models now project a one-meter sea level rise over the next century, which could displace millions of people, from Florida to Bangladesh, and require trillions of dollars’ investment in coastal infrastructure. But these models don’t reflect recent findings that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at an ever faster rate. What explains this alarming acceleration, and just how can we figure out what’s happening inside a gigantic wall of ice? In collaboration with National Geographic, NOVA follows the exploits of acclaimed photojournalist James Balog and a scientific team. Their goal is to create a unique photo archive of melting glaciers that could provide a key to understanding their runaway behavior. They’re grappling with blizzards, fickle technology and perilous climbs up craggy precipices to anchor cameras that must withstand sub-zero temperatures and winds up to 170 mph. In this high-action adventure, NOVA investigates the mystery of the mighty ice sheets that will affect the fate of coastlines around the world.

“Extreme Ice” follows National Geographic-funded photojournalist James Balog to some of the most dangerous places on Earth as he documents the disappearance of an icy landscape that took thousands of years to form. Today, it’s withering away before his eyes.
 
An artist, scientist, explorer, and also a former mountain guide, Balog braved treacherous terrain to site his cameras in ideal locations to record the unfolding frozen drama. “Extreme Ice” charts the progress of Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the largest photographic study ever attempted of the cryosphere, the mantle of ice that covers large portions of the Earth and that plays a critical role in weather. The effort involves deploying 26 time-lapse cameras in alpine and arctic locations across the Northern Hemisphere and programming them to shoot a frame every daylight hour for three years.
 
As NOVA shows, the resulting time-lapse movies give breathtaking evidence of geology in action. Ominously, the proverbial glacial pace of large masses of ice is no longer as slow as it once was, due to the warming of the planet that is accelerating the breakup of these titanic structures, including the separation of a Rhode Island-sized piece of the Antarctic ice sheet in 2002.
 
Scientists are overwhelmingly convinced that the temperature increase is tied to the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels.
 
NOVA accompanies Balog to EIS locations around the world. In Alaska, he records the rapid retreat of the Columbia Glacier, one of the largest ocean-feeding glaciers in North America. Amazingly, the calving of such glaciers is so frequent that wetsuit-clad surfers sometimes paddle nearby, waiting for an avalanche of ice to generate massive waves for a wild ride. Later, in Iceland, Balog photographs exquisitely sculpted icebergs on the beach, the last stop in their natural journey from the interior out to sea.
 
But most dramatically of all, in Greenland the award-winning photographer explores a landscape as magnificent as the canyon country of Utah — except carved in solid ice. Lowering himself by rope into a giant hole in the ice sheet bored out by a torrent of meltwater, Balog is in a world of surpassing beauty, scientific mystery, and maximum peril.
 
Among the scientists featured in “Extreme Ice” are Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University, along with Tad Pfeffer and Jim White, both of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Alley tells NOVA that the shrinking of glaciers has long been clear to anyone who lives near them. But “the ice sheets surprised us,” he says. “We sort of thought that the little glaciers would melt when it got warmer and that the big ice sheets wouldn’t do much. And all of a sudden the big ice sheets started rumbling faster … and we said, whoa, that wasn’t supposed to happen!”
 
And no one knows what will happen next. The ultimate doomsday scenario — the melting of all the ice on Greenland and Antarctica and the subsequent raising of sea level by some 200 feet — seems out of the question anytime soon. But even the current consensus estimate of a three-foot sea-level rise in the next century will wreak havoc in coastal regions, displacing millions of people from Florida to Bangladesh. The lesson is that the big melt-off now under way holds a potential for change of far-reaching and as yet unknown extent.
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