Iceberg watching: Not your average day job

Ever stood on an arctic ice cliff in Greenland and watched icebergs the size of Manhattan calve off into the ocean? For Director Jeff Orlowski of 'Chasing Ice,' it's all part of the job.
Crosscut archive image.

Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski.

Ever stood on an arctic ice cliff in Greenland and watched icebergs the size of Manhattan calve off into the ocean? For Director Jeff Orlowski of 'Chasing Ice,' it's all part of the job.

The snow obliterates the winter wasteland and roaring wind bombards our shelter. Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland, May 28th, 2008. 

I am outside filming Adam LeWinter, who is struggling to hold down our tent against the wind. Across the bright yellow fabric is stamped EIS (for Extreme Ice Survey). I look past him, and there is nothing. No people, no buildings. Literally, nothing. We are the only two people within a 100 mile radius and the only way to get to us is by helicopter.
"We have to collapse it, put rocks over it!" Adam yells over the howling wind. My face is slapped by the frigid air. It is hard to breath, but I know he is right. We must secure the tent before it blows away.
“It’s ripping too,” he yells at me, staring at the gash that appears across the only thing that would keep us warm and alive out on this barren ice sheet. “We gotta collapse it now,” he urges, more frantically. No tent means no shelter and I realize now might be a good time to put down the camera, stop filming the action and start participating in it.
Adam and I are in Greenland as part of the Extreme Ice Survey, the most wide-ranging photo study of glacial melting to date. The project will use time-lapse photography to document the melting of glaciers in 18 sites around the world, including Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Bolivia and the Alps. 

I run over to him, struggling to stay upright while 90 mph winds bulldoze my body. Hearts pounding, gasping for air, we try to wrench the poles from the canvas. "Grab some rocks!" I scream into the void, suffocating as the words are pushed back into my mouth. He looks around futilely across the vast snowscape and massive glacier that looms in the distance. It stretches as far as the eye can see.
Clinging to the tent as the wind whips across the canvas, almost lifting it into the air like an umbrella, thoughts of my warm college dorm room flash before my eyes.
What was I thinking jumping on board this project? It was clearly called extreme for a reason. I remember wondering this before too, when James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, first handed me the list of equipment I would need to participate in EIS: Ice axes, crampons — all this technical climbing gear I had never used before. "I am going to die," I thought to myself. To me, ice climbing had only ever been a source of danger. But when a world-renowned photographer conducting one of the biggest research projects of our time asks you to join, you say YES! 
Which is how Adam, EIS' Field Operations Manager, and I ended up on a cliff overlooking the face of a massive glacier, wrestling with our tent. This was just day nine of a month-long “glacier watching” trip, as he and I jokingly called it. Two of our tents would be destroyed by winds before we left.
James has sent us out into the vast wilderness of Greenland to try to capture a major calving event on tape while he was recovering from knee surgery. Calving, which typically occurs during the beginning of the melt season, is the breaking away of a huge ice mass from a glacier as it melts. Though the odds of a major calving event occurring while we're here are slim to none, we keep the cameras rolling non-stop just in case something happens.
On Day 17, Adam is on one of our scheduled satellite check-in calls with James to discuss updates. The day is a tad windy, but the sun is out and we have nine cameras set up — four video cameras and 5 time-lapse cameras — all pointed at various parts of the glacier. At times it's worse than watching grass grow.
“Jim,” Adam says, “nothing is happening.” Then, we hear a low rumble; a deep, reverberating growl that seems to shake the very air I am breathing.
“It’s starting Adam, I think!” I yell. “Adam, it’s starting!” Adam runs over to where I am by the cameras on the edge, still holding the phone. “There is a big piece that’s starting to calve!” he tells James. 
“Call him back,” I say as we watch the ice beginning to shift and crumble. I start to focus the cameras in on a V-section that looks like it is beginning to break off. Then a massive iceberg begins to break off and roll over. I have to double check that all of the cameras are running. I can’t believe my eyes.
“Look at the whole thing,” Adam utters in astonishment. We watch in awe as 3,000-foot-tall towers of ice break off and roll into the ocean. The fracturing icebergs plummet into the water, while other pieces shoot up 600 feet into the sky. 
The scale of this is difficult to imagine. Picture all of lower Manhattan made up of solid ice; ice that's two to three times taller than the tallest buildings. Now imagine all of those buildings beginning to quake and tip as the whole massive city just breaks apart right in front of your eyes. Continuously. For 75 minutes.
That day, Adam and I recorded the largest calving event ever caught on tape. The time-lapse photography and James’s research with EIS showed that the Illulissat Glacier, which we were filming that day, retreated more between 2001 and 2010 than it had in the previous 100 years.
This earth is changing right before our eyes. Adam and I were fortunate enough to capture this particular event on camera, but the timeline is immediate and the scale is massive. This is visual evidence of climate change. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and you capture something so monumental that it alters the course of your life.
These experiences changed my life. I hope they change yours.
If you go: Jeff Orlowski will be at Town Hall, Sunday, October 21 from 6 - 7 p.m to discuss Chasing Ice, the award-winning documentary film about the Extreme Ice Survey, $5.  


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