March 12, 2012 4:00 AM EDT

The Extreme Ice Survey, an artistic and scientific project founded by award-winning photographer James Balog, has 27 cameras pointed at 18 glaciers around the world. Together, they snap 8,000 frames worth of time-lapse footage per year. Thus the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) is able to capture alterations to the arctic environment—changes that might seem to be slow, glacially so, are rendered dramatic. Almost equally dramatic was the organization’s beginning, which is documented in a film called Chasing Ice, now screening at South by Southwest.

President Barack Obama called Tuesday for Congress to "quickly" pass legislation to reform a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program. Obama's proposal would end the spy agency's bulk collection of telephone metadata, instead allowing phone companies to keep the data and requiring law enforcement and intelligence officials to seek judicial approval before accessing the information. The new Obama administration proposal follows months of reviews into the surveillance program following its revelation in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Speaking to reporters Tuesday in a joint news conference marking the end of the Nuclear Security Summit with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at The Hague, Obama said the dramatically scaled-back program would answer the concerns of many critics of the surveillance effort. "This ensures that government is not in possession of that bulk data," Obama said. "I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data. This proposal that's been presented to me would eliminate that concern. "The second thing that people were concerned about is making sure that not only is a judge overseeing the overall program but also that a judge is looking at each individual inquiry that's made into a database, and this new plan that's been presented to me does that," Obama added. "So overall, I'm confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised. And I'm looking forward to working with Congress to make sure we go ahead and pass the enabling legislation quickly, so that we can get on with the business of effective law enforcement." Administration officials said they will seek authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to extend the existing surveillance program until Congress acts. Asked by a Dutch reporter about lingering effects of revelations of American surveillance of European leaders and foreign nationals, Obama said "any one issue can be an irritant in the relationship between the countries, but it doesn't define those relationships." Obama took aim at "sensationalized" reporting about the scope of American surveillance, but acknowledged why people may be concerned. "I think the fears about our privacy in this age of the Internet and big data are justified," Obama said. "I think the actual facts — people would have an assurance that if you are just the ordinary citizen in any of these countries, that your privacy, in fact, is not being invaded on. But I recognize that because of these revelations, that there's a process that's taking place where we have to win back the trust, not just of governments but more importantly of ordinary citizens. And that's not going to happen overnight because I think that there's a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical in particular of U.S. intelligence services. "The step we took that was announced today I think is an example of us slowly, systematically putting in more checks, balances, legal processes," Obama added. "The good news is that I'm very confident that it can be achieved. And I'm also confident that the core values that America has always believed in — in terms of privacy, rule of law, individual rights — that that has guided, you know, the United States for many years and it will continue to guide us into the future."
President Obama has asked Congress to "quickly" reform a controversial National Security Administration surveillance program, allowing phone companies to keep data from Americans' calls but requiring authorities to seek judicial approval before accessing it

Between equipment unable to withstand the icy conditions and a faulty timer in an early camera, the project had a difficult start. “I thought I was going to buy off-the-shelf parts and I was naïve about the hardware. I ended up designing custom stuff,” Balog says. “We had a lot of money on the line, we had a lot of plans on the line, a lot of people on the line.”

It took months of trial and error, but their system of Nikon D200 DSLR cameras, solar panels, batteries, heavy-duty tripods, waterproof cases and wind-proof anchors is now reliable. Some of the cameras are checked on and their images downloaded only once a year.

Balog’s initial attraction to the ice was one of aesthetics—“the sculpture, the beauty, the light, the form, the color,” he says—and a forthcoming photo book from EIS will showcase those facets of the glaciers. But the technology innovated by Balog and his team doesn’t just allow EIS to take those pictures: the Survey aims to put them to good use. Balog, who had been a skeptic about climate change until about 20 years ago, says that seeing the evidence of climate change may make a difference where human stubbornness otherwise persists. He takes a zen perspective on change, believing that whatever landscape is underneath the glaciers, to be revealed by their melting, will also be perfect in its own way, but says he is disheartened by the extent to which people refuse to recognize their place in causing that change and its inevitable climatic, political and military consequences.

“The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that our aesthetics were the pathway to communicate the science effectively, the knowledge base that the scientists had,” Balog says. “The visual information can only be part of the puzzle but that’s the piece of the puzzle that I know how to put in the board.”

Much has been made of the fact that Wolf of Wall Street star Leonardo DiCaprio often comes up short during award season, particularly at the Oscars. While the a 39-year-old actor won a Golden Globe for his role as Jordan Belfort in Wolf, he lost out in the Best Actor category at the Academy Awards to Matthew McConaughey. But the folks at DesignCrowd recently evened the score a bit when a digitally altered image of DiCaprio won the company's award for the best "hipsterized" celebrity. Some of the other entries included Meryl Streep, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Dame Judi Dench, but it's rather difficult to top a bowtie, seersucker suit-shorts (shuits?) and patent leather shoes — even if you do put purple hair and green lipstick on one of England's most revered actors. Also, there's a decent chance that the hipsterized version of Ellen's Oscar selfie could haunt your dreams. Don't say we didn't warn you.
And not just any hipster — but a British schoolboy hipster!

The footage from Chasing Ice dates back to the very beginning of the project. At the time, Balog predicted he would want to have it on film but had no definite plans in mind. It was not until 2009 that Jeff Orlowski, who had begun as an unpaid assistant cameraman for EIS, asked Balog for the rights to put the video to use. The resulting film, directed by Orlowski, was given the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired for TV broadcast by the National Geographic Channel.

Although Balog was not involved in the film’s production, he sees it as a part of the larger mission of EIS. “I hope this becomes part of the wake-up call that will jostle people out of their intellectual hibernation,” he says, “and at the same time, if you stand back from all of that and you just look at the incredible beauty of what we’ve been shooting the past six years, it’s mind-boggling.”

Chasing Ice is playing at South by Southwest on March 15 and March 16. Find out more here.

James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, is a recipient of the Leica Medal of Excellence, International League of Conservation Photographers Award, North American Nature Photography Association “Outstanding Photographer of the Year” award and others. Read more about him and the Extreme Ice Survey on their websites.

Write to Lily Rothman at

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