January 06, 2013

Chasing Ice on a Bad Knee

I recently viewed the film "Chasing Ice" about....well, let me allow the film maker, James Balog, to tell you what it's about:   

"Chasing Ice is the story of one man’s mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of climate change. Using time-lapse cameras, his videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate."

That seems like a modest enough goal.  The purpose of my blog, by the way, is as part of my mission to change the tide of history by goofing around on the Internet.  But damn, those tides are persistent!

Anyway, Monsieur Auteur, I can relate.   James Balog is a tall, lean man with flowing hair who has been a photographer for National Geographic and who gazes into the stark northern sunsets with fierce determination.  He has a pretty wife and an adoring daughter who both simply accept that this important man must expose himself to the harsh climate and pitiless terrain of Greenland's glacier country in order to get the story in pictures.  Yes, Mr. Balog does seem startlingly like the lionized protagonist of The Bridges of Madison County, although unlike that fictional hero, Mr. Balog cannot "move like a panther" as his haunches ripple because he's got a messed-up knee that they keep operating on. 

The movie is about 80 minutes long, but only about 15 minutes are devoted exclusively to Mr. Balog's bad knee.  The rest of the footage is about two things: (1) How difficult it is to set up reliable time-lapse photography stations in Greenland, Alaska and Iceland; and (2) Taking unnecessary risks by rappelling into deep crevasses to get pictures of the interior of glaciers that you can see perfectly well already from up above.

The time lapse photography demonstrates, as the Mission Statement proclaims, that the glaciers in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska are retreating very fast.  Q.E.D., the climate is warming.  Mr. Balog himself was a skeptic as recently as 20 years ago because he didn't think puny "man was capable of altering the Earth's climate."  I've always thought that was about the stupidest rationale for climate change denial I've ever heard.  I first began reading about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere in the book Moment in the Sun in 1969 (when the levels were only 6% above baseline levels, as opposed to about 35% now), and the one thing that never occurred to me was that "mankind" was not capable of changing the fundamental chemistry of the atmosphere.  I mean, why aren't we?  We spend all day, every day, releasing carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, digging up fossil fuels which took millions of years to form (storing carbon as they did so) and then releasing the stored gases all at once, at a pace thousands, millions of times faster than natural cycles. This was one of the main points of the late, great Barry Commoner's books, which, of course, no one paid any attention to.

Maybe if Barry had talked more about his bad knee, if he had one.  Anyway, the northern glaciers are retreating fast - you can see it in the time lapse photography.  It occurred to me, however, that the problem with this kind of "proof" is that it creates (along with the work of Al Gore) another unscientific straw man for the Deniers to attack, if they think of this line of attack and if they can be bothered to watch the graphic evidence of James Balog's bad ACL damage.  Namely, the retreat of the glaciers is subject to a set of positive feedback loops which takes it out of a linear relationship with actual atmospheric temperature rise.

James Balog, distracted and confused by the pain medication he must routinely take for his arthritic lower extremity, never mentions the mechanics of glacier melt and "deflation" and leaves you to think that the glaciers are rushing into the northern Atlantic (or Pacific, in the case of Alaska) simply because of warm air, "calving" icebergs of phenomenal size and at an unprecedented rate.  The warm air certainly starts the process.  But those interior "waterfalls" which Balog unnecessarily risked his life in order to see better (or at least from a different angle) are, I know from other reading, one of the main positive feedback loops that make glacier retreat nonlinear with actual temperature rise.  Essentially, all of the ice melt makes its way down to the interface between the bottom of the glacier and the bedrock beneath the glacier, and a kind of slip 'n slide is formed which accelerates the glacier toward the (warming) ocean water. 

Because he was on the DL, Mr. Balog was not there when two of his young colleagues, who had camped out in the Greenland ice country for 17 days waiting for a massive calving event, were eyewitnesses to one of the largest glacier break-offs in recorded history.  It was awesome and frightening to watch on film.  A chunk of glacier larger than Lower Manhattan, and with vertical cliffs higher than its tallest skyscrapers, churned and rolled and collapsed into the Atlantic, with a deep, rumbling roar that sounded very much like the end of the world.

Anyway, all ribbing aside, hats off to Mr. Balog.  It's a nice piece of work.  Impressionistically, his film gets the job done.  Who's got time for the science? Although, increasingly, the positive feedback loops are the problem as far as attempts to model climate change with computer simulation, so it would have been good to discuss such complexities in this film, since they're relevant to what was photographed. The softening tundra in Siberia and northern Canada giving up their vast stores of methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2), the seabeds giving up their methane in response to warming oceans, the loss of albedo because of all the melting ice - it's very difficult to account for the multivariant interplay between all of these forcing events, and it's why climate scientists, more than the general public, are scared out of their wits.  Their models keep getting superseded by reality, and it's all in the wrong direction.

Global warming is only the weirdest, most dangerous development in the history of human civilization that we're talking about, after all.  Not only are there no easy answers, at this point there may not be any answers at all.  As Bill McKibben has written, no matter what we do now, we've only got about a 50/50 chance of averting catastrophic temperature rise.  And that's if we actually started doing something now, which I'm sure we will once the "economy recovers."