British filmmaker Cal Murphy Barton is producing a documentary about a scientist who has witnessed five decades of Arctic sea ice melt firsthand, longer than the satellites: Peter Wadhams.
Climate change is taking center stage this week at the United Nations, where teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg addressed the crowd with a ferocious passion. The diplomats sitting in New York applauded and even cheered but failed to agree to any measures that would significantly take the planet off its current path to hotter, warmer, and wetter conditions.
The world still sits on a trajectory headed towards warming of 3.2-5.4°C by the end of this century. Those changes are felt palpably at the top of the Earth, where Arctic sea ice reached its annual minimum just five days ago, on September 19. The amount of sea ice, 4.15 million square kilometers, resembled the extent in 2007 and 2016, all of which are tied for the second lowest amount of sea ice on record according to satellites, which have taken photographs from space of the Arctic since 1978.
Down at sea level, the people who have been living, working, and studying in the Arctic for their entire lifetimes have also built up important records of how the ice has changed. One such individual who has dedicated his career to researching the dynamics of Arctic sea ice is the University of Cambridge ocean physicist Peter Wadhams. The British scientist has been traveling to the Arctic for even longer than spaceborne satellites have been snapping their shutters. His first trip to the Arctic was nearly 50 years ago in 1970 on board the Hudson 70 Expedition, the first (and only) circumnavigation of the Americas by sea. He has since led 40 polar field expeditions.
Earlier this year, I spoke to Peter on the phone. During our conversation, he recounted the dramatic changes to the ice that he has witnessed firsthand. He noted,
“There is a huge loss of area of ice and the remaining ice is very thin. It isn’t in any way like the permanent solid ice cover that there use to be when I was younger. And that really does make a geographical change, at least it ought to be, because when I was younger, the ice filling up the ocean in winter and summer more or less formed a solid land mass that connected Asia and North America.”
His observations of declining sea ice have informed countless papers and a critically acclaimed book he wrote that was published in 2017, A Farewell to Ice. It was this very book that film director Cal Murphy Barton was reading on a train one day rolling through the English landscape that spurred him to turn Wadham’s life story into a documentary – a sort of oral history of a scientist’s lifetime of work.
The film will be an “oral and visual history of Peter’s lived experience at the frontline of polar science,” as the project’s Kickstarter relates. Barton is trying to raise £12,000 to fund the first stage of the film’s production, which will involve filming and interviews with Wadhams.
The second stage will involve filming on location in the Arctic Ocean and digitizing Peter’s archive of 35mm film slides, captured in the polar regions between the mid-1970s and 1990s. Barton described of the slides, “They were all taken on an Olympus OM1 camera, as this was the only manual SLR Peter could find that wouldn’t break in extreme Arctic conditions.”
These slides will drive the film’s narrative and structure. Underscoring their importance, Barton emphasized, “This massive collection of slides is really a remarkable and important document. I suppose it’s become retrospectively laden with meaning, in that it now subtly evidences an Arctic in the throes of tumultuous change.” The director plans to film Peter interacting with the slides as he looks at them for the first time in years and recollects his experience on the very ice he photographed – and the very ice that is now in short supply. The film’s trailer, released earlier this month, includes glimpses of such scenes.
A call to action
When I asked Wadhams what he hoped to achieve with the film, he effectively described it as a call to action. He underscored,
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the urgency of taking action on climate change, and that action is simply not being taken.”
Wadhams added, “Despite the Paris Agreement, nothing is actually being done and carbon dioxide levels are rising faster than ever.”
In fact, according to the World Resources Institute, carbon dioxide emissions were 1.8 percent higher in 2018 compared to 2017. India’s emissions grew a worrying 6.3 percent, while China – sometimes admired for its efforts to combat climate change – still produced 4.7 percent more emissions last year than the year prior.
As the world’s nations fail to take action either individually or at the United Nations, the Cambridge scientist stressed during his call, “The only solution that can actually save us from really extreme harmful effects is to actually start taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which means developing and applying these methods.” He highlighted carbon capture and absorbents as some techniques that could bring down CO2 levels. In his mind, they may be humanity’s only options, as he argued, “Everything else we’re trying to do is just slowing down the rate at which things will get worse.”
Despite Wadhams having seen the Arctic sea ice melt away before his very eyes over half a century, he still retained a glimmer of optimism. “There are people who say nothing can be done, but in my view that’s not the case,” he offered. “Something can be done, and that something that can be done is direct capture of CO2 out of the atmosphere, which deals with global warming. That’s an extremely expensive business, but it can be done, so we can save ourselves. We know what we have to do to save ourselves. It’s just a matter of being prepared to give it the priority it needs.”
So perhaps From the Ice Itself differs in that while it is a call to action like the many climate change documentaries that have come before it, Wadhams appears to be a fatalist when it comes to radically changing human behavior. The action he is trying to encourage is a technological solution – removing CO2 from the atmosphere – rather than a more revolutionary option that might involve, for instance, fully forsaking carbon-intensive fossil fuels or promoting a philosophy of “degrowth,” as is becoming popular. While Thunberg and George Monbiot in a new short film promote “natural climate solutions” like trees, kelp forests, and meadows that take carbon out of the air, Wadhams sees a different way forward, but one that would hopefully still result in the same outcome: less CO2 in the air and more ice in the Arctic.