Chasing Ice and the power of the big screen

Feb 01, 2013 5 Comments by 6351 views

Last week, a group of us from the Cohen Research Group, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, went to see a new movie. This is usually not an event worth blogging about but this movie was different. We saw the documentary “Chasing Ice”, a film by acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog. If you’re not aware of the film, Balog’s original interest in photographing ice at Jökulsárlón, Iceland and subsequent observations on and around glaciers, led to his desire to tell the story of the rapid retreat of glaciers as a result of climate change. Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) and deployed time lapse cameras across the arctic to monitor glacier health since 2007. With as many as 43 cameras in the field at one time, the time lapse photography tells an enchanting story about the extent of glacial retreat, both laterally and vertically, in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska. The images are certainly captivating, but what they show is quite scary.

Chasing Ice title565

The film contained some undeniably beautiful still and motion images of the Arctic, which are definitely worth going to see on the big screen. Visual feast aside, the message of this film is why I write this blog.

As geochemists, we spend generally spend our time designing and conducting experiments in order to input our results and observations into models. We use these models to predict how earth processes did/do/will happen(ed) in the past/present/future or in places and at scales we can’t yet make direct observations. While I work on the specifics of micro-scale interactions, I sometimes find it hard to see the bigger picture of the Earth system as a whole. “Chasing Ice” helped me open my eyes.

I think I understand the implications of a warming planet and I know that things could get quite messy for us, the perpetrators. Even so, I was shocked at the scale and speed of change to, as Balog phrases it, “the Earth’s coal mine canary” – glaciers. This film was created to debunk the American media’s denial of anthropogenic climate change, but it works on this side of the pond too. Across Europe, scientists, news agencies, governments and the public alike ‘get’ that climate change is happening. However, I’d argue that we are largely ignorant to the severity of the situation which we read and hear about regularly. I was shocked at the documented scale of change in some of the biggest glaciers in the Arctic and I think most others would be too.

The reason I was shocked whilst watching “Chasing Ice” was because this huge visual dataset was presented in a simple and accessible way. It was not presented as a spreadsheet of ice area, volume, air temperatures, and glacier flow rate with a detailed, peer reviewed paper. It was not presented as a ‘News Special’, filled to the brim with scaremongering (the kind of thing I tend to ignore). It was presented as a motion picture, with a “see for yourself” narrative, inviting the viewer to engage in the situation and the implications, ending with a “what are you going to do about it?”


In an interview during the film, Balog explains the reason for founding EIS because he wanted to have something to say if, in 20 years time, his children asked “what did you do about climate change”. Balog and the EIS have created a database of images, both for today and for the future, recording landscapes which may not exist in the future.

In an environment where improved communication of science is becoming evermore important, what can we learn from Chasing Ice? Does the classic model of communication work? How can we communicate the implications of our field’s work in a more accessible way?


We don’t all do research that will make a nice film. My PhD, for example, would be a thrilling 4 hour marathon consisting of minerals sitting in acidic water and miniature pine trees slowly dying – hardly the stuff of an academy award!

With UK universities all working flat out towards REF 2014 and ‘impact’ being THE vital aspect of research across all disciplines, is our science being communicated well enough?

I think I’ll leave this post there. Two things though, go and see the film and take people with you. Make sure you listen to the original song that has earned an academy award nomination for Chasing, Before My Time – J. Ralph, Scarlett Johansson & Joshua Bell.

Also, I’d enjoy a discussion on this, if you have any ideas on what more we can be doing to communicate our science more effectively please use the comments section below.


Chasing Ice website:


Original post in the Cohen Research Group User’s blog (University of Leeds):


About the author

Andy pic200  Andy Bray is a PhD student in the Cohen Geochemistry Group, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds and is supervised by Liane G. Benning and Steeve Bonneville. Andy’s studies are part of the World Universities Network Weathering Science Consortium investigating the biological weathering of primary minerals. Whilst working, Andy enjoys watching minerals dissolve and miniature pine trees grow. In a more natural environment, you might also find Andy telling bad jokes and jumping into rivers.

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5 Responses to “Chasing Ice and the power of the big screen”

  1. Raphael Pietzsch says:

    Dear Andy,

    When it comes to climate change and global warming, the subject immediately invokes passionate discussions about their causes and consequences. But I believe that many of us may have a little biased view of this subject. I think even that global warming may not be the most appropriate term; instead, climate change may indeed fit in the case. This is because modelling climate with accuracy is a tough issue and the outputs from the model depend on what you put in it. Global trends (in the sense of a unique global environment/climate) are definitely hard to define, and I wonder whether observed trends may not record mainly local variability. I’m saying this because most studies are conducted in the northern hemisphere, and conditions vary from one hemisphere to the other. Maybe there is also ice retreat in the Antarctic as well, but I’ve seen already different studies showing different results in distinct parts of Antarctica, such as what occurs in the West and East Antarctica. Maybe we haven’t yet gathered enough results to be so confidently putative with respect to a “global warming trend”. Maybe simply “climate change” is more appropriate.Nevertheless, should a global warming be really so alarming, if it is definitely the case? Of course, rising sea level would be one significant consequence, and many of our cities lay on the coasts. But another side of the same coin is the spread of arable land, just to mention one positive aspect of this situation. Let’s not forget that the mankind thrived just after the end of the Last Ice Age. Civilizations developed and agriculture was created. During the Medieval Warm Period the vikings colonised Greenland and arrived to Newfoundland. In a long lasting cold, dry, harsh environment our prosperity might have been delayed, or even prevented.
    I’m not denying global climate change. But first of all, I think science should be done without the intervening hand of political and economical interests (and governmental agencies are normally the main sponsors of research – do they reflect their government’s interests/ideologies? maybe, maybe not – if so, how often, and how deep?), i.e., it should be done independently, evenly, fairly, unbiased. In the ideal world, there would be no private interests involved, but we know that it is not the case in many circumstances.
    The other issue following this line is that public opinion influences research funding, since what’s in the headlines matters for the general public and it helps orienting people choosing a topic within their areas of expertise that will have a greater likelyhood of receiving funding. This situation could result in a sort of positive feedback, in my opinion: some research results point out to an alarming consequence, that will gain media attention, which in turn may limit future research to a determined line of reasoning, excluding other possibilities. And this goes on and on. And perhaps many are simply repeating again and again the same argument that others are saying, without reflecting or considering other points, like I’m proposing. This may sound like theory of conspiracy, but I have a genuine belief that science is not conducted 100% without ideological influence. Even though many scientists around may truly believe that they are independent and/or are researching for a greater good, some may not realise this in some circumstances, that they may not be in total control of the situation. Others are engaged in a cause, and that’s ideology again. Science shouldn’t be commited to anyone’s cause.
    Like I said, I’m not denying climate change. Even a global warming trend can be possibly true, even though I particularly don’t advocate it is decidedly the case. But we should rethink whether it’s consequences are deservedly so alarming, or are out there new opportunities left for mankind.
    If all my arguments fail, I quote James Lovelock, who recently said that there’s no geoengineering we humans could do to prevent the already inevitable warming. Paraphrasing a saying that can be read by visiting the Natural History Museum in London, “nothing is certain, except change”. And humans have a great ability to adapt. We have done it before, and we can do better now.
    Anyway, I’m open to debate, and I’ll look for the film somewhere closer to me.
    Best regards,
    Raphael Pietzsch

    • Andy Bray says:

      Firstly, thanks for your comment, it’s a bit of a rarity lately on the EAG Blog!
      You’re right that geographically specific studies may produce a skewed picture of a global climate story; I don’t think this is what numerous streams of evidence have concluded. For the sake of argument if we assume that this is a regional climatic phenomenon, the implications of it do still need to be considered. Yes, sea level rise is an obvious consequence though there are also effects which could be less visible and more significant, e.g. changes to ocean circulation and subsequent marine nutrient fluxes. We could debate the implications to great extent but I suspect it would be fruitless.
      I am regularly astounded by the intricacy and interconnectedness of our planet’s systems and that’s why I love learning about the Earth. Surely, the more we understand how the Earth works, the better we can manage it. If funding for Earth Sciences sticks by that mantra, I’ll be content!

      • Raphael Pietzsch says:

        My pleasure, Andy.
        I actually have more doubts than certainties about what’s happening to our planet, and having the opportunity to express an opinion and/or discuss about the subject definitely helps to improve my understanding of it. I also think that trying to falsify a hypothesis helps to make it stronger if it can’t be proved wrong. Maybe I’m mistaken, and please correct me, but i don’t think that in our present day state of knowledge our comprehension of a global warming shares the same status of a Theory of Evolution, which is a fact beyond doubt already.
        And like I said, I’m less certain about the long term implications, though I acknowledge that changes to ocean circulation can also occur, changes in the patterns of the whole hydrological cycle could occur, and there are the effects of isostatic rebound that in part balance the rise in sea level, and many other occurrences that add to the equation, making it more and more complex. This is also what motivates me, figuring out ways of understanding our planet’s interactions better.
        Don’t regard the discussion as fruitless. It is not! Though I don’t work directly with present day climate (I’m particularly involved at the moment with the geochemistry of Cretaceous carbonates) I try to be up-to-date and follow the studies related to this subject. I believe that understanding our present day context helps to better understand the past conditions, and vice-versa.
        By the way, I’ve looked for the film, but it seems that it’s not in theaters around here. The main circuit here usually shows just Hollywood blockbusters or so… I’ll have to watch it in another opportunity.
        Best regards,

  2. Michael Bau says:

    Dear Andy,

    I greatly appreciate that you mention this movie (which is well made and beautiful, imo). Those in need of some material for a class may want to take a look at the you tube video that can be found here:

    however… you wrote:
    “As geochemists, we spend generally spend our time designing and conducting experiments in order to input our results and observations into models.”

    This is a very narrow view of geochemistry. Geochemists who are trained geologists (in contrast to those who are trained chemists or physicists) will probably strongly object and claim that this is the reason why some geochemical experiments and models may be great pieces of science, but are, unfortunately, rather far away from the natural system “Planet Earth” that is or should be the subject of geochemistry.

    Nevertheless, thanks a lot for a nice blog!

    cheers – Michael

    • Andy Bray says:

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comment, sorry for the delay in responding.

      You’re right, my description is probably a little narrow. I was using it to illustrate how, even when trying to understand large scale geochemical process, our day to day tasks often inhibit us from viewing things on a ‘Planet Earth’ scale.

      Thanks again for the comment,

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