I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world as TIME’s environment correspondent: to rainforests, Himalayan mountains, coral reefs. But far and away the most singular spot I ever visited was the far north of Greenland. I saw vast flat ice sheets that spread in all directions, without end. I saw icebergs that could dwarf an ocean liner, suspended in the purest cerulean blue. I saw glaciers so vast as to seem indestructible—and I heard earth-shattering crack when they broke apart.
As the environmental photographer James Balog shows in his new book Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, the deep ice of the poles is far from invulnerable. Balog’s breathtaking pictures show how erosion and melting temperatures take their toll on the glaciers, shrinking and carving them.
The result is dazzling to look at, but terrifying for the planet. As glaciers melt, more and more water flows into the oceans, raising sea levels. This July scientists were surprised to see the entire Greenland ice sheet essentially turn to mush for a few days in an unusually rapid thaw. Arctic sea ice melted to its smallest extent this summer in decades. The day could well come when the only place will be able to see glaciers will be photographs like those in Ice.