Jewish Pittsburgh native rigs cameras for groundbreaking film

Jewish Pittsburgh native rigs cameras for groundbreaking film

Adam LeWinter installing an EIS time-lapse camera on the edge of a melt channel on the Greenland ice sheet, Greenland. (James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey)
Adam LeWinter installing an EIS time-lapse camera on the edge of a melt channel on the Greenland ice sheet, Greenland. (James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey)

For three years, Adam LeWinter went to work in some of the coldest places on earth.

He did it for the adventure.

He did it for the challenge.

And he did it to send a chilling message to the world:

Our planet’s climate is changing — rapidly.

“Many people still believe we’re not powerful enough to change our environment in such a profound way,” LeWinter, a Jewish Pittsburgh native, told the Chronicle, “but we definitely are.”

From 2007 to 2010, LeWinter, a trained mechanical engineer, was the field engineer for the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), a long-term photography project using time-lapse digital photography to show the retreat of the world’s glaciers and changes to ecosystems.

He built more than 40 sophisticated time-lapse digital cameras in places as near as Montana and as far as Nepal to show how rapidly ice formations are melting. And he braved extreme conditions to set the cameras up, and revisit them regularly to retrieve the memory cards with their precious images.

The culmination of his work is “Chasing Ice,” an award-winning documentary, in which he appears, now showing at the Regent Square Theater. The film has made the short list for a possible Oscar nomination.

“Theaters have been filling up; some theaters have asked to extend the showings of the film,” LeWinter said. “We’ve had a lot of skeptics come up and say this has changed my view.”

A Wexford native who grew up in Temple Ohav Shalom and graduated from North Allegheny High School, LeWinter, 30, the son of Barbara and Jay LeWinter, was working for a design engineering firm in Colorado in 2006 — and not especially enjoying it — when a friend introduced him to James Balog, an international nature photojournalist and founder of the EIS, who offered him a part-time job.

He began moonlighting for the EIS, building and testing camera packages that could withstand extreme conditions.

After a three-month stint on the Greenland ice sheet for the Discovery Channel show, “Project Earth,” he joined the crew of “Chasing Ice.” His job was to affix these cameras to rock ledges and cliff faces at critical spots around the globe to track the retreat of glaciers.

Which wasn’t easy.

“We used rock hammer drills and bolted the systems to the rocks, and used stainless steel cable that helped solidify and secure the systems,” LeWinter said. “We used 12-volt sealed batteries [as the power sources]. They’re external from the cameras, and we used solar panels to charge them.

“The crux of it was building a custom controller — essentially a custom computer,” he continued. “If there was enough ambient light to take a good photograph — the computer would turn on the camera, take a picture then turn it off until the next hour.”

On a typical summer day a camera system would snap 24 pictures — on a winter day, maybe one.

“I don’t know the exact number we built, I think we built around 45; [and] I think we had 30 camera systems installed.”

Each system was built to withstand temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero as well as hurricane force winds, snowfall, rain and sun.

Still, they didn’t always survive. 

“We had cameras destroyed by foxes chewing cables,” he said. “Marmots in Glacier National Park chewed the cable, [the camera] fell from the rock wall. One was buried under 20 feet of snow in Alaska. We had four blown completely off rock faces by winds. We had one camera essentially sandblasted … up in Greenland.”

Whenever LeWinter visited the camera sites, which was every three months to a year depending on the location, to retrieve the memory cards, he did so with trepidation, wondering if the elements had ruined his work.

“Sometimes it took a week to reach the site, and for me there was always a pit in my stomach,” he said. “It wasn’t until  you actually opened the box that you were sure the thing was still shooting.”

The most accessible camera was on the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, which LeWinter could reach in 20 minutes. The most inaccessible was in Nepal near the base of Mount Everest, which could take two weeks to reach by flying to the Himalayan country, hiking to the Everest base camp then making the final ascent to the camera.

“Some cameras in Greenland are accessible only by helicopter. There’s only a couple minutes to land, go out to the camera, fix it — if anything needs to be fixed — and close it up again because the pilot won’t shut down the rotors. I had one pilot who said, ‘you have five minutes; if you are not back, I’m taking off.’ ”

The cameras were stationed in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Montana, Nepal, Colorado and British Columbia.

LeWinter left EIS in 2010 to do research for the Army Corps of Engineer’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory. He also is going to graduate school at the University of Northern Colorado to study earth sciences.

He believes projects like “Chasing Ice” are changing attitudes about climate change.

“Instead of it being a subject of debate I see it as topic of what can we do, what will we see as far as changes in our lifetimes,” he said. “It’s based on science; its based on fact, it not a question of belief at all.”

Despite all the hazards, in building the cameras and working on the film, LeWinter said he never really felt in danger.

“I’m a mountaineer; I’m a climber. I kind of live for that stuff. We did a lot of rope repelling and hanging off of faces, and I loved it.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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