The following article comes from the Winter 2014 issue of Mountain Magazine. It tracks the decline of a glacier in coastal Alaska and was written by Tad Pfeffer, scientific partner of the Extreme Ice Survey.

James Balog’s photographs reveal a glacier in retreat.
James Balog’s photographs reveal a glacier in retreat.

The tremendous snowfall of the Alaskan coastal ranges funnels down to the waters of Prince William Sound, where the Columbia Glacier calves icebergs into the Valdez shipping lanes. I’ve lived at the Columbia for a few weeks at a time for nearly 10 years, and at glaciers around the world for 35. I watch, measure, photograph, and poke at ice with various tools to reveal the inner workings of this particular cog in the great environmental machine we inhabit. My work is arcane, an oddball pursuit. Or it was. Surveying ice is now mainstream. The state of the world’s climate, and its glaciers, suddenly matters.

Since 1983, the Columbia Glacier’s length has shrunk by a third, losing 12 miles of ice. Pushing icebergs into the ocean at that rate is fast work. The Columbia can move 100 feet per day. In 2006, I used time-lapse photography as an observational tool. The next summer, renowned photographer James Balog and a film crew accompanied me to Alaska to do more.

The result of our work is the Extreme Ice Survey, a collection of large-scale, time-lapse imagery from Alaska, Iceland, and Greenland. Balog’s photos get the crucial point across: These giant systems are changing, and fast. Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski captured the big moments and the frustrating hurdles, and his contribution became the film Chasing Ice. Our collective labor informs those who must act, for the benefit of us all.

And our work continues. The EIS now gathers time-lapse photography from 28 cameras stationed at 13 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalayas, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains. South America and Antarctica are next. Each camera collects 8,000 frames annually, taking a photo every half-hour of daylight. The images help the public learn more about glaciers and ice sheets so that 35 years from now, the Columbia might still exist.

Visit extremeicesurvey.org for more information.