Breckenridge town hall addresses impacts of climate change | SummitDaily.com

Breckenridge town hall addresses impacts of climate change

Alli Langley
alangley@summitdaily.com

For years, James Balog, a Boulder-based scientist, mountaineer and National Geographic photographer, tried to figure out how to give the Earth a voice.

The story of climate change and the way humans are altering the planet's geology is typically told with complex, dry measurements of long-range weather data.

"How do you bring that to life?" he wondered.

Through his career as a nature photojournalist, he had already witnessed shocking changes in the Arctic and realized the testimony he wanted to present to people worldwide lay in the glaciers at the Earth's poles. There massive landscapes created over hundreds of years were disappearing in just a few years or even weeks.

But how could he make ice visually interesting and provocative?

In 2007, Balog and his team started placing cameras around 23 glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Austria, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains.

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Every 30 minutes during daylight hours, each camera captures an image, recording about 8,000 frames a year. The photos are then edited into stunning videos that reveal previously unseen transformations.

In 2012, his team's efforts were turned into a documentary called "Chasing Ice," which won the award for Excellence in Cinematography at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, as well as dozens of awards at international festivals. The documentary was shortlisted for the 2013 Academy Awards and screened at the White House, the U.S. Congress, the U.K. House of Commons and the United Nations.

Balog named the project the Extreme Ice Survey, and he and his team continue their risky expeditions to gather images from the cameras.

"We're approaching year No. 8 right now," he said. "That really blows my mind."

BACK IN BRECK

Balog will discuss his work along with another ice and climate researcher, James White, at a town hall event and Q&A session in Breckenridge on Wednesday, Jan. 14.

The event, part of the annual Glen Gerberg Climate and Weather Summit co-hosted by GoBreck and Breckenridge Ski Resort, will run from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Columbine Room of the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Breckenridge.

Besides "Chasing Ice," Balog's team has also been featured in the 2009 NOVA special "Extreme Ice." He has received numerous awards for his research and environmental activism and has written eight books. His photos have been extensively published in major magazines and exhibited at more than 100 museums and galleries around the world.

White, a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the university's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, helps line up speakers for the larger annual conference that brings together on-camera meteorologists with research scientists to talk about storm forecasting.

"It's a real gem, and Breckenridge ought to be real proud to be the home for this," he said. "You are ground zero for climate and weather forecasting."

ICY EXPEDITIONS

White has studied ice cores, carbon cycling and climate change for about 30 years.

As a graduate student, he said, "I was convinced that by now we would have dealt with extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

He became a team member and later a team leader for about a dozen international expeditions in Greenland and Antarctica to produce ice cores, a sometimes dangerous process that takes years.

In his most recent trip to Greenland, White described a winter landscape that would challenge the hardiest of Rocky Mountain folk. "It's not like Breckenridge. It's just white, flat, cold."

At the end of every day, he said, he enjoyed sharing meals with 25 to 30 team members representing 10 to 15 countries.

The paleoclimatologist is still drawn to studying polar ice cores because they keep explaining the earth's climate past, present and future in new ways.

"We haven't exhausted all the cool things we can do with ice cores yet," he said, plus "we haven't been studying the earth from a big-picture view for very long."

Only after World War II did scientists start examining the oceans and the atmosphere, and because Antarctica is roughly the size of the U.S., researchers need more than a handful of samples to gain a more accurate understanding.

ON THE FRONTLINES

For people in Breckenridge, Summit County and greater Colorado, that understanding of climate change is critical, White said. "This is more than just an annoying problem. It is water, it is recreation, it is tourism, it is the backbone of our economy."

White said high-elevation places like Breckenridge will see extreme changes similar to those at the Earth's poles, which will experience 6 to 15 degree changes if the rest of the planet heats by 2 degrees Celsius.

Balog said ski areas probably won't disappear in 20 years, but the snowpack they rely on will radically change.

White said Coloradans are the troops on the front line of climate change.

"We need to be the ones to pay attention, and we need to be the ones who shout out and complain when we think things aren't going the way they ought to be going," he said. "If troops on the front line aren't complaining, the generals back in Washington don't care."

Though White and Balog both are based in Boulder, White said they have never tag-teamed a presentation and he's excited to speak with Balog for the first time.

The pair will focus not only on the science of climate change but also on ethical decisions facing society.

"We all talk about the economic reasons for either doing something or not doing something," he said, but "there's a lot of right and wrong in here, and we'll talk about those things as well."

Balog, 62, said he was fascinated by snow and winter as a young child and that a profound sense of responsibility and obligation both keeps him going with his risky, entrepreneurial work.

"We understand that climate change is altering our world and to turn away from that and to not bear witness to that is, to me, inexcusable," he said.

Like many Summit County residents, he shares a love of what he called narcissistic outdoor pursuits.

"I come from the adventure sports world … and it's fundamentally self-directed," he said. "We've got some big problems around us, and some of that passion that gets thrown into recreation activity ought to be getting thrown into working toward solutions for the problems we find ourselves in."

IF YOU GO

What: A free public talk and Q&A with Arctic researchers James Balog and James White, hosted by Breckenridge Ski Resort and GoBreck.com.

When: Wednesday, Jan. 14, 6-7 p.m.

Where: The Columbine room at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Breckenridge, 550 Village Road, Breckenridge, CO 80424

To learn more about the event or watch the live stream, visit stormcenter.com/wxcsummit.