Before Our Eyes: The melting glaciers in time lapse

In 2007, photographer James Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the most comprehensive ground-based photographic study of the Earth’s glaciers ever undertaken. Pioneering new automated time lapse technology, James and a team of scientists, videographers, and extreme weather expedition experts have setup 43 cameras to record the changes occurring in 24 glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Austria, and the Rocky Mountains. Over the past decade, this has resulted in stunning time lapse recordings of the changing glaciers (spoiler alert, they are melting). Click each of the images below to see, in about a minute, the effects of 7-8 years of climate change on one of the world’s largest glaciers.

Along with expansion of the oceans as they heat up, the melting of the large, land-based glaciers in these videos directly contributes to sea-level rise. A recent scientific study of the melting of Antarctic land-based glaciers, published in the prestigious and extensively peer-reviewed journal, Nature, makes the following conclusion:

“Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.”

The second of the above sentences refers to modeling results that quantified the expected effects of rising atmospheric temperature on the ocean temperature. The ocean heats up more slowly than the atmosphere. This means that atmospheric temperature changes we are “locking in” now will result in delayed warming of the oceans that will take millennia to reverse, even if we were to arrest the heating of the atmosphere now. This “sluggishness” of many of the Earth’s climate responses, very well understood by scientists, is important information for all of us to understand. As our leaders dither around with ignorant and disingenuous arguments about whether climate change is even happening (it is), balancing needs of the environment against short-term jobs in the fossil fuel industry (or, as evidence suggests is really the case, short-term profits for highly influential fossil fuel executives), we must understand that the decisions we are making right now, every day, are profoundly affecting the challenges of future generations, including the kids among us right now.

As you watch the videos below, imagine our children, and their children, and their children’s children, either erecting sea walls that will grow to 15 meter (49-foot!!) heights or abandoning our favorite coastal cities. Then, balance that against the potential for short-term job losses in the fossil fuel industry (keeping in mind that new jobs would presumably be created by the aggressive development of renewable energy). Destruction of our coastal cities and job losses in the fossil fuel industry are both economic harms, there is no doubt. Which is worse?

Video credit: EIS. Time lapse footage of the Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, 2007-2015. EIS description: “The Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, has experienced significant retreat and deflation in the recent past. Once flowing proudly across Mendenhall Lake, the glacier now takes a small piece of lake front real-estate far from where our cameras were originally installed, and even further from the view of the thousands of visitors who travel to see the glacier each summer.”


Video credit: EIS. Time lapse footage of the Columbia Glacier, Alaska, 2007-2015. EIS description: “Flowing from the heart of the Chugach Mountains in South-Central Alaska, the Columbia Glacier is one of the fastest changing glaciers in North America. In the last 30 years the glacier has deflated well over one thousand feet and has retreated about ten miles. This loss contributes to approximately one percent of total sea level rise (accounting for both thermal expansion and glacier mass melt).”


Video credit: EIS. Time lapse footage of the Sólheimajökull Glacier, Iceland, 2007-2015. EIS description: “The Sólheimajökull Glacier is a large tongue of ice that flows southward off of the Mýrdalsjökull Ice Cap in Southern Iceland. The glacier is retreating due to a combination of stream erosion and ice melt. The cracks or “crevasses” that can be seen forming parallel to the flow of the glacier indicate that it is spreading out and thinning as it continues to flow forward.”


Video credit: EIS. Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland, 2007-2014. EIS description: “The Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland is one of the fastest flowing glaciers in the World and contributes more ice to the World Ocean than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. On May 28, 2008, Adam LeWinter and Director Jeff Orlowski filmed a historic breakup at the Illulissat Glacier. The event lasted for 75 minutes during which the three mile wide terminus of the glacier retreated a full mile. This rare footage has gone on record as the largest glacier calving event ever captured on film, by the 2016 Guinness Book of World Records.”


See more changes happening Before Our Eyes.

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