Covering the complex and controversial topic of global warming can be a tall task. Even when reporting from a part of the world that has seen the most dramatic effects of climate change, filming day-to-day in the arctic is a challenge on many levels.
Filming the annual reindeer crossing in Inuvik, Canada.
While the sea ice in the Arctic Circle is melting at an alarming rate, it’s not disappearing overnight. You can’t just focus your lens on an ice cube and watch it wither away. So the task became how to capture images at a micro-level that conveys the magnitude of this macro-issue.
The core of these changes to this remote region are in the people who live there. From small whaling villages in Alaska, to the industrial headwaters of the trans-Alaska pipeline and to a growing northern town in Canada, we traveled this vast region by plane, truck, snowmobile and dogsled.
Four-wheel-drive pickup trucks are about as common as a yellow cab in New York City. You won’t see many other vehicles on the roads. For shorter routes about town, locals rely on ATVs and snowmobiles, which they always called skidoos no matter what brand they actually own.
With their tendency to flip, we were discouraged from using ATVs and stuck to the slower, safer skidoos. I got quite accustomed to bouncing around in all kinds of sleds as Sean towed me and the gear. Small specs of ice would shoot up and sting your face and find their way into any open pocket or bag.
Along for the ride. A blustery, cold journey to our next shooting location.
We quickly learned that working in the arctic was a much slower process. Even before heading outside, getting dressed to protect yourself from the harsh cold was a time-consuming undertaking. There is a science and strategy to layering; base layers, thermal layers and weather resistant protection. Looking out at the desolate terrain through my polarized goggles, I felt like an astronaut walking on the surface of the moon.
“Houston, we’ve found water.” Finally making it to open water in Barrow, AK.
You’ll know immediately if you’ve properly covered yourself as any exposed skin will sear from the burning cold. Early on, I made the mistake of getting out of a truck without my hat and gloves.
After twenty seconds of filming, the tips of my ears were as red as my parka. I lost function in my hands and couldn’t work the controls on my camera. After carrying my tripod back to the vehicle, I had to use my free hand to loosen the grip of my frozen fingers.
I was lucky that no permanent damage was done and from then on, always made sure to fully suit up no matter how brief the excursion.
Nothing like getting back to the car and finding your water bottle frozen solid.
But while protecting yourself is the first priority, it took some time getting used to the slower pace. My bulky parka would bump my camera and shake my video so after setting each shot I would have to step farther back from the camera. When I looked down into the viewfinder, my breath would condensate on the screen and immediately freeze. Trying to set your focus is impossible when your image is covered by crystallized ice.
Not surprisingly, the extreme cold was the most difficult obstacle of this assignment. Camera batteries lasted about a third of their normal life. My camera itself had its own snow jacket with built-in pockets for disposable heat packs. Most equipment isn’t designed to work in -20°F (-30°C) so what most people use to keep their hands warm as they ride up a ski-lift, I needed to keep my equipment functioning. It was an arduous ordeal every time we stepped foot outside.
Thankfully, traveling through North America’s arctic at the beginning of spring is a time when it’s almost twenty-four hours of daylight. So while every shoot took longer to complete, we at least weren’t running against the clock to finish before dark.
Yet after our first week of production we were totally drained and exhausted. Your inner-clock gets confused from working in a bright environment 24/7. Light sleepers who wake up in the middle of the night will think they’ve overslept. For us, the extended hours of light translated to very long work days. We typically work until sundown to get as much video as possible. But in this case, we just kept on working. Sunset would come around 11pm and even then it would just turn to an extended dusk.
Taking a break to “rest” on the frozen McKenzie river on the way to Tuktoyaktuk, Canada.
One “night” in Point Hope, we headed out to the literal “point.” Standing on the most north-western tip of North America, I set my cameras up to film a time-lapse of the sunset. Many hours later, I still found myself watching the sun slowly slide out of view. Being so north on the globe, the sun doesn’t just drop down below the horizon but rather gradually descends more horizontally than vertically- like the smoothest aircraft landing.
Between the rounds of checking the camera’s battery life and scouting for polar bears, I found myself marveling at the fact that I was one of the very last people in North America watching the sunset that day. From where I was standing, I saw the last glow of red before the sun dipped down and started a new day on the other side of the world in China.
The feeling took my frozen breath away. The prolonged dusk set in, tinting the snow purple and blue, and I felt so small and alone. With nothing around but snow and ice, my insignificance in the moment conflicted with the significance of the environment.
As the scientists and people of the north we spoke to all say, human activity is playing a major role in climate change. Standing at ground zero of the debate in the Arctic Circle, the importance of this region and our responsibility to protect it became crystal clear.