‘Chasing Ice’ Director on Hurricane Sandy, & Waking Up to Global Warming

His documentary, in theaters now, captures shocking footage of retreating glaciers. Jeff Orlowski on the superstorm’s toll on his family and our dire risks from climate change.

12.14.12 8:45 AM ET

When we started following photographer James Balog, we were not planning on making a film; we just wanted to document his adventures around the world. And we knew that his idea—to shoot time-lapse videos of glaciers for multiple years—could potentially create groundbreaking imagery of our changing planet. 

Over the course of the five years that we traveled with Balog around the Arctic, we learned firsthand that ice around the world is melting much faster than scientists predicted. I did not consider myself an environmental activist before making this film, but having learned what we have, I feel a responsibility to get the truth out into the world. 

I was born and raised on New York’s Staten Island, and my parents still live there. When Hurricane Sandy hit, it was devastating. It really did “hit home,” so to speak. Scientists have been telling us for decades to expect more events like Sandy, and it is scary to think that this is just the beginning.

My grandmother has had a house on Staten Island for 50 years, and this was the first time that it flooded—with water up to the mailbox. In her lifetime, the sea level has risen about eight inches. A child born today will experience an increase to sea level of at least three feet; some estimates are as high as six feet. This rate of change is remarkable and completely unprecedented. Climate change is not a distant threat. It is already changing the way we live. We are already seeing the consequences of man-made climate change. In fact, new research shows that it cost the global economy a massive $1.2 trillion last year alone. We don’t know how bad things might get down the line, but the predictions are dire. The question is not, “Is climate change happening?” Nor is the question, “Is climate change man-made?” Rather, we need to realize it is already here, and start asking, “What are we going to do about it?” 

Fortunately, people are really starting to understand that climate change is a reality. That is what I hope Chasing Ice can do. James has captured undeniable visual evidence of climate change. And when people see the film, they get it. We’ve had hundreds of people come up to us after screenings and tell us that they used to be skeptical of climate change, but now they understand it. One woman told us how she spent years arguing with her friends that climate change was not real, to the point of not allowing climate-change believers to visit her house. But after seeing Chasing Ice, she knew she had to make amends.

You can see her full response to the film:

We hope Chasing Ice continues to have opportunities to be shared, and that it continues to shift perception among our audiences.

This 2009 photo released by Extreme Ice Survey shows Birthday Canyon in Greenland furing the filming of "Chasing Ice." The film, about climate change, follows National Geographic photographer James Balog across the Arctic as he deploys revolutionary time-lapse cameras designed to capture a multi-year record of the world's changing glaciers. (AP Photo/Extreme Ice Survey, James Balog)

James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey/AP

Birthday Canyon in Greenland during the filming of "Chasing Ice."

In the film, James says that he wanted to honestly say to his daughters 20 to 30 years from now that he did everything he could with the skills and tools he had to make a difference by confronting climate change. As a photographer, he wanted to reveal the truth through innovative visual evidence. I believe deeply that every one of us has an individual talent or trait that can be used to make a difference in some way. On our team, everybody brought their different skills and resources to the project, whether it was the lawyer, the producers, the designer, or composer, each trying to make a difference. We can and must use our combined skills and every opportunity available to address climate change. I challenge our viewers: don’t ask us what you can do. Instead, figure out how you can make a difference and share those stories and actions with us. Please join our team, and help us preserve a sustainable and healthy planet for all future generations.