NOVA: Extreme Ice


Updated Thu, Nov 21, 2013 11:15 am

Wednesday, December 18 • 9 p.m.

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 Extreme Ice, a NOVA National Geographic Television special.
 
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.
 
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.