An Arctic Journey in a Changing World
One of the documentaries I watched at the Landlocked Film Festival in Iowa City this past weekend provided a disconcerting picture of how climate change is affecting the area north of the Arctic Circle. If you get a chance to watch it, do; its message is unforgettable. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Thoreson was on board the Cloud Nine in 1992, sailing below the Arctic Circle in ice-filled waters. “Thirteen years ago, we encountered a tremendous amount of ice,” he says.” Dense pack ice blocked and surrounded us at every turn. We were very lucky to escape — and retreat — out of the Arctic.” The footage accompanying Thoreson’s words shows pack ice crowding against the hull of the ship.
In 1994, Thoreson again sailed with the Cloud Nine, this time in an attempt to travel the Northwest Passage. But the ship became locked in pack ice, unable to move. “The vessel is under constant ice pressure,” Thoreson wrote in his journal. It was a harrowing adventure that came to a disappointing end.
Eleven years later, in 2005, the crew of the Cloud Nine attempted to sail through the Northwest Passage yet again. But, as before, they needed emergency assistance, calling in a Canadian ice breaker to free them from the endless pack ice that pressed in on them from all sides.
The Cloud Nine‘s 2007 journey, begun in July, would prove to have a different ending than the rest. This film is the story of that journey.
In cold and fog, the crew began its “7,000 mile journey through the icy north,” Thoreson tells viewers. “I hope to see the effects of climate change in the north and note some differences since I was in the Arctic 13 years ago.” And, indeed, he did see differences. Though the crew encountered occasional ice bergs and scattered pieces of pack ice here and there, it was clear sailing along their route — the same route the ship had tried and failed to navigate twice before.
“What a contrast to observe such a loss of ice in the summer of 2007,” says Thoreson, while the film pans the ice-free water along the horizon in a sweeping circle. “I began to wonder — and am quite concerned — about all the wildlife and people who depend on this ice for their survival. What will their future be in an ice-free Arctic?
Just past Port Leopold, the captain says the Cloud Nine is in the exact spot where the ship had been helplessly trapped by pack ice 13 years before. But there is virtually no ice in the channel on this voyage. “The channel is open. The ice is disintegrating. This is definitely good for us, but not so good for the planet,” Thoreson says. These ice-free waters are 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“This is the moment I’ve been waiting for for 13 years. Clear skies, a light breeze pushing the ice off shore,” Thoreson says. Now, the camera shows a few scattered pieces of pack ice floating near the shore. Yet, that small bit of ice is all that we see; the rest is empty water. “But this is a moment of truth for the planet. It seems to show that change is happening, and possibly at an accelerated pace. The Northwest Passage is ice free, and we’re witnessing history — planetary history.”
“What do you think about global warming?” someone asks crew member Chris Parkman. “I think it’s pretty scary,” he says, “’cause if you figure this was all ice two years ago, and now it’s not, it really makes you believe in it quickly.” He scans the open water. “Of course, there’s always the nonbelievers. But all they have to do is come up here, and they might start believing.” He grins, but it’s a wry grin. There’s nothing funny about the signs this crew is observing.
“Making history is one thing, but doing it in the era of climate change is something different altogether,” Thoreson opines. “The Arctic is changing rapidly. However difficult it is for us to achieve, the overriding theme of this voyage is climate change.”
The voyage ends safely this time, with the Cloud Nine docking in an Alaskan port. But the viewer is left with the uneasy feeling that safety is a temporary illusion. What will happen as more ice melts in the Arctic Circle? And what will be the effects on the rest of the planet? It’s a chilling thought to contemplate — more chilling than the waters of the Northwest Passage.
(Note: To purchase a copy of the DVD or the DVD plus a companion book, go to the Iowa Public Television Marketplace. Hurry! Supplies may be limited.)