At a museum on the South Side of Chicago, newly mounted photographs and video detail the disappearance, due to rising temperatures, of glaciers that are hundreds of years old. It’s a breathtaking display of natural beauty, fading.
At one on the North Side, a new exhibit demonstrates the effects of climate change on our homes and surroundings. Short version: It’ll be fine so long as you prepare for floods, fires and extreme weather patterns.
The belief in and practice of science may be under siege at the top levels of federal government — just this week, President Donald Trump reversed measures enacted by his predecessor intended to combat climate change — but it continues to thrive in pockets of resistance that include science museums.
“Extreme Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” at the Museum of Science and Industry showcases the work of Colorado-based photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey. The survey’s automated cameras take half-hourly photos of two dozen glaciers across the globe to document what is being lost — even as it produces stunning imagery and devastating time-lapse video.
The 2014 Emmy-winning documentary “Chasing Ice” featured the survey’s work and can be found on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and elsewhere. And Chicagoans can go see the exhibit crafted by an MSI team from Balog’s work.
Scheduled to be up for at least two years, it’s a simple show, but its simplicity helps to hammer home the message: Human-caused climate change is real, and it is now. Glaciers, according to the exhibit, are losing thickness in this century at a rate two or more times greater than in the previous 100 years.
After an introductory room, there’s a seven-minute film, and then the main room showcases photographs of shrinking glaciers, images that are beautiful and chilling. Interactive kiosks explain topics including how the ice survey’s equipment works, the science of glaciers and actions visitors can take in their own lives.
For those kids, especially, who might be feeling a little bummed about the forces their shortsighted parents have set loose in the world, there’s a neat, frigid filip. An ice wall toward the exhibit’s end lets visitors try to deepen one of the handprints already there or just see how long they can touch the wall.
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It’s the one example here of ice that’s growing: In coming weeks it is expected to reach its maximum thickness of about six inches.
The exhibit came about after an MSI staffer saw a talk by Balog, who is also a scientist and a mountaineer, said Patricia Ward, the museum’s director of science exhibitions and partnerships.
“What I saw reflected in his work was this mixture of art and science,” she said. “We had been wanting to do a climate change exhibition. … This was a way to touch people emotionally.”
It’s true. You can marvel at the beautiful blue pools of water in some of Balog’s photos, but you are told that they are meltwater, and meltwater occurs because of, yes, melting.
In the film that visitors should be sure to see, Balog himself calls glaciers “the canary in the global coal mine” and a kind of “ground zero” for climate change. He was a skeptic on the topic three decades ago, he says, thinking computer modeling couldn’t be good enough to know for sure.
But photographing glaciers, being able to see them change dramatically, ended his skepticism, he says, and spurred him to start the Extreme Ice Survey and its parent Earth Vision Institute.
The ice survey is a vital tool for science, the film says, and glaciers have been invaluable to scientists in another way. Using pockets of ancient air trapped inside, they have been able to demonstrate that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen dramatically in recent years, well beyond historic peaks. Carbon dioxide, of course, is a greenhouse gas that traps heat.
“It’s a physical fact. You can’t lobby it away. You can’t wish it away,” Balog said in a talk he gave Friday night at the museum, a special “Extreme Ice” evening that sold 1,500 tickets, according to museum officials.
Included in the video is the largest, most dramatic glacier calving, or breaking off of a section, ever captured on film. Survey photographers, watching a glacier near Ilulissat in Greenland, filmed an ice chunk three miles wide and one-and-a-half times the height of Willis Tower breaking off of the glacier and into the sea. It was an extreme example of an ongoing process that is expected to raise sea levels and swallow land.
“What we see in most parts of the world is that glaciers are retreating, and that’s telling us that summer is getting hotter,” Balog told the MSI audience.
And this means, he says in the exhibit’s film, that we are seeing “massive, geologic-scale change in our lifetime.”
Both “Extreme Ice” and the global warming exhibit at the North Side’s Notebaert Nature Museum are included with general admission.
“Our House: Rethinking Home in a Changing Climate” opened over the weekend at the Notebaert, the second in its series of three climate change-related special exhibitions put on by the museum of the 160-year-old Chicago Academy of Sciences.
The first laid out the relationships between weather and climate. This one is more about the effects people will see in their own home habitats. The museum has a high proportion of children in its audience so it is designed to work for them. Much information is presented at adult hip level, and there are play tables and information wheels to spin around.
There is a steel hurricane shutter to slide shut, a double pane window to raise. Legos are available.
But the information being presented speaks to adults, as well. The organization includes such sections as The Rising Tide, Cruel Summer and In Today’s Forecast. And the essence of the message is this: Build sustainably; live wisely by, for instance, clearing an area around your home to protect it from fire; and take the actions you can to reduce your personal impact, such as turning down the thermostat.
Throughout, at least for now, there is the refreshing scent of freshly cut lumber; house framing is the exhibit’s structural metaphor. Among related activities, the museum at 3 p.m. April 6 is hosting a forum on Thriving in a Changing Climate, and as of Monday more than 200 people had signed up.
Even if the topic is “challenging,” as museum President Deborah Lahey said, there is clearly public interest.
“It’s a tough connection to have,” said Kristen Pratt, the museum’s sustainability manager. “But people want to have it.”