This evening, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival presents the film, Chasing Ice, a film follows National Geographic photographer James Balog’s quest to answer the question, “How can one take a picture of climate change?” His response was a cover story on glaciers that became one of the most well-read pieces in the magazine’s history. That story marked the beginning of a much larger endeavor—the Extreme Ice Survey—a massive photography project that placed thirty cameras across three continents to gather visual evidence of the Earth’s melting ice. This stunning documentary tells the story of a visionary who, in facing his own mortality, bequeaths the magic of photography and the adventure of the expedition to a new generation and captures the most visible sign of climate change on the planet today.
Immediately following the film, there will be a discussion with Richard Houghton, PhD., Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. We caught up with Dr. Houghton a few days before the film to find out more about what lead him to his chosen field of ecology and what he feels is important to understand about global warming.
Why did you become an ecologist?
I liked nature and I liked thinking about the interactions between human society and nature; e.g., water, agriculture, climate, pollution, population, etc. I never dreamed that I would be ‘doing’ global ecology --- keeping track of how the earth is changing.
Tell us about what American Geophysical Union does.
The American Geophysical Union is a society of (mostly) scientists who study the earth and planetary systems. The Union holds annual meetings and publishes a number of journals for specific disciplines; e.g., atmospheric research, oceanography, biogeosciences, space research….
What is a terrestrial ecosystem?
A terrestrial ecosystem is a unit of land that contains living organisms. Examples include a field, a forest, the arctic tundra, Amazonian rain forests. You can think of the earth’s land surface as a terrestrial ecosystem --- the earth as an ecosystem.
What role do terrestrial ecosystems play in climate change and the global carbon cycle?
Terrestrial ecosystems (units of land) exchange carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. The world’s forests are major actors in both climate change and the global carbon cycle. Deforestation releases carbon to the atmosphere and accounts today for about 15% of total yearly carbon emissions (85% of the emissions are from fossil fuels). Growing forests remove carbon from the atmosphere. Through management of land (agriculture, forest management), humans can either add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere or remove it. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas causing climatic change. Thus, the management of land (or terrestrial ecosystems) affects the rate of climate change.
Besides the direct effects of land management on carbon emissions, climate change itself (i.e., nature) affects the emissions of carbon from land. A warmer arctic may enable trees to grow larger, thus removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On the other hand, a warming arctic may increase the decay of peat, releasing more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Warming tropical forests may kill trees through drought and fire, thereby releasing carbon dioxide. The balance of these exchanges of carbon dioxide between land and atmosphere either accelerate or slow the rate and extent of climatic change.
Can you tell us about a finding in your work that has personally shocked you?
I continue to be ‘shocked’ by the fact that the global warming we have seen so far has not changed the way the global carbon cycle works. Carbon dioxide is still being taken up by land (terrestrial ecosystems) and the oceans in proportion to the emissions of carbon dioxide from human activity. That means that as the emissions have increased, so has the uptake of carbon by land and ocean. That’s great news (and surprising) because it means that nature has been acting to reduce the rate of climatic change. If the land or oceans were taking up less carbon dioxide, more would remain in the atmosphere, and climate would be changing faster. I will continue to be ‘shocked’ until the uptake of carbon by land and ocean start to decline. That’s what I would expect to happen, and it’s only a matter of time. When it does happen, it may be very difficult to manage the global carbon cycle and, thus, to ‘manage’ climate.
What struck you about Chasing Ice?
I am struck by the visual evidence that the earth is warming. I just learned that the junior senator from Alaska became a believer in climate change when the glacier that he had camped near as a boy was no longer there when he visited the same location with his son. It also occurs to me that most Americans believe that the climate is changing because they have experienced it, not because scientists have said it is.
What’s your favorite way to 'check out'?
I like watching movies, and I like walking through the woods, collecting, sawing, and splitting wood for warming my house in winter.
“Chasing Ice” screens at on Wednesday, July 18th. Dinner and Music at 7pm. and have combined efforts to create greens, grains, and grilled food (grilled on site), with live music by Shawn Barber of Goodnight Louise. Film at 8pm; Discussion with Richard Houghton, Senior Scientist Woods Hole Research Center Additional screening at the , Edgartown on Thursday, July 19th. Film at 8pm. Discussion with Richard Houghton, Senior Scientist Woods Hole Research Center. Tickets are $7 for members and $15 for non-members. Advance tickets available at www.tmvff.org or at the door (note: films tend to sell out).