‘Ice’ Storm: New Doc Shows How Swelling Oceans Threaten to Swallow Manhattan Altogether

Sandy is only the beginning

Chasing Ice
Coming soon to a sea level near you: Iceland’s melting glaciers. From Chasing Ice.

“Wow. We live in a horror movie,” my husband opined one morning not long ago. He was reading an article about the melting of the Arctic tundra releasing massive bubbles of methane gas into the atmosphere, which in turn causes more melting, which in turn causes global warming, which in turn creates monster storms that threaten to end civilization as we know it.

I love scary movies, the creepier the better. But this Halloween season, they’re bleeding off the screen and into real life.

Can we please turn it off now?

Actually, no, we cannot.

A week ago, I was invited to the premiere of a deeply alarming documentary called Chasing Ice. It follows the work and adventures of a National Geographic photographer named James Balog in his endeavor to document, with time-lapse photography, the epic melting of the Arctic glaciers, a melting that is filling the world’s seas and atmosphere with water that has nowhere to go but onto land. 

Mr. Balog became an ice aficionado in 2005, when The New Yorker sent him to document the frozen landscape in Iceland. A year later, National Geographic sent him to document melt. He was stunned by the speed of the changes he witnessed and began documenting the retreating ice on three continents.

With the help of National Geographic and other funders, he created the Extreme Ice Survey, which he calls an “art meets science” project that also involved some serious adventure travel. With a small team of graduate students, he rappelled and hiked up ice walls from Greenland to Everest to Alaska, installing 27 time lapse cameras that are still recording images every half hour.

The cameras, currently at 18 locations, yield up to 8,000 images a year.

Arranged as time-lapse video, the shrinking of the mountains of ice in the northern hemisphere and the higher altitudes of our planet is plain to see, and absolutely alarming.

One of the most shocking images in the film was captured by two young members of Mr. Balog’s team who were flown in and dropped on the edge of an unstable Greenland glacier. After two weeks freezing their asses off in a lonely tent in the middle of a windy, white landscape, they were rewarded, first with a thunderous noise, and then by witnessing and videotaping the epic collapse of an edge of an Arctic glacier bigger that the island of Manhattan.

That’s a lot of water, flowing into the world’s oceans, and it’s bad news for cities like New York.

It also is not news. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report predicting that by the year 2100, the sea will rise 20 inches both from “thermal expansion” (warming) of the ocean and from melting glaciers and ice sheets. That rise has huge implications for coastal cities.

To view this movie is to witness epic amounts of ice turning into billions of gallons of water, in real time. It is impossible to watch it and not wonder how islands on the edge of the ocean, like Manhattan, are not already underwater.

The issue of climate change has been utterly ignored by the candidates, both of whom won’t challenge the status quo on it.

Because it’s happening so slowly, mostly out of sight and with no apparent solution, it’s been almost impossible to get emotional about global warming. Until Sandy.

The moment it hit me was a few months back, reading a Times article that (again) predicted that the city of New York will be mostly underwater in 100 years. I was sitting in an airport, and suddenly I burst into tears. Our city will be either gone or utterly transformed by the time my grandchildren are adults. My kids will be among the last generation to remember this great city.

How is it that everyone isn’t crying over this?

Chasing Ice humanizes an enormous and incomprehensible geological phenomenon with time-lapse images, putting unusually rapid geological change on breathtaking display. It also personalizes the story by focusing on one man, the photographer whose commitment to the project involved repeated knee surgery so he could keep scrabbling up icy inclines to check his cameras, and the technological difficulties of building and maintaining photo gear in the harshest conditions on the planet.

The film also has an emotional component, insofar as Mr. Balog, who attended the premiere, is shown with tears in his eyes talking about what his findings mean for his—and everyone’s—children.

“This is the memory of the landscape,” he said of the film. “That landscape is gone; it may never be seen again in the history of civilization.”

Mr. Balog and the filmmakers are among the vast majority of world scientists who are convinced that the sudden warming of the world is caused by human burning of fossil fuels. Their graphs are pretty hard to argue with. Average world temperatures have risen in a parallel line with tonnage of burned fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

There are still a small number of scientists–hacks on the Koch brothers’ payroll or simply contrarian cranks—who argue that the historic melt underway is unrelated to fossil fuel burning. They’ve managed to portray climate change “believers” as tree-hugging outliers.

These so called “deniers” give just enough cover to the drill baby drill crowd on the right, but also allow our own progressive president to remain silent and to promote the continued extraction of these fuels from American soil.

The near-total silence from our leaders on this vital issue in the wake of the storm is truly scary. Gov. Cuomo mentioned climate change on WNYC Tuesday, but Chris Christie has so far only given it lip service without acting on his convictions. Last year, he said that “climate change is real” and “impacting our state” while pulling New Jersey out of a regional greenhouse gas initiative.

The fate of the planet is a political football. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 85 percent of Democrats believe there is evidence of global warming, while 48 percent of Republicans say the same. Some of them might be waking up. Monday night, while tidal storm surges were inundating the streets of America’s greatest city, Meghan McCain was tweeting, “So are we still going to go with climate change not being real, fellow Republicans?”

I hate to sound like a torture-loving W. administration lawyer, but maybe the “deniers” should be forced to watch Chasing Ice with their eyelids held open, like Alex in Clockwork Orange, until they get it. And then maybe someone can invent some spine juice for our leaders, so that they begin talking about making some hard changes in our habits.

In the meantime, what to tell the kids about the real-life geological bogeyman scientists are crediting with this awful storm?

Our own little darlings watched Sandy blow past with interest but strangely little alarm as lashes of wind, water and eerie electrical transformer explosions filled the night sky. They laughingly went along with packing the go-bag. This is their world: they’ve been waiting for the zombie apocalypse since they learned to read.

The dawn after the howling black night, we found ourselves among the fortunate high-ground survivors. But we’re still shell-shocked.

Halloween night, we’ll be hunkered down with the candy corn and a stiff drink, freaking ourselves out while watching the scariest movie ever, the original Swedish version of Let the Right One In, about a child vampire.

The great thing about it: it’s probably not real.


‘Ice’ Storm: New Doc Shows How Swelling Oceans Threaten to Swallow Manhattan Altogether