On April 13, 2023, the Pulitzer Center hosted a webinar to discuss the PBS documentary Beneath the Polar Sun. The film follows a crew of five as they attempt to follow the edge of the Nares Strait, part of the Last Ice Area, where ice breaks off from the Arctic Ocean and journeys to melt in warmer waters. Haunted by ill-fated 20th-century treks, the team must cut its 300-nautical-mile trip short by nearly 250 miles because of ice and weather conditions. The film is part of the Enduring Ice Project.
Part science, history, survival drama, and elegy, Beneath the Polar Sun weighs what we’ve lost and what we stand to lose from the front lines of our warming planet. Filmmaker Stephen Smith, who has led Arctic expeditions for more than 40 years, joined Chris Horvat, polar oceanographer and resident scientist on the expedition, for a conversation moderated by Meral Jamal, the Pulitzer Center’s 2023 Persephone Miel Fellow.
According to the documentary, “the Arctic has lost three-quarters of its sea volume in the past 40 years.” Smith warns that we’ve “barely acknowledged the impact [of melting ice] on the cooling system of our planet.”
In 2004, Smith's expedition navigated past individual ice floes 30 to 40 feet thick and hundreds of square miles in area; in 2017, waters were nearly impassable as wind and waves “bash[ed] ice to bits.” Many times, the team carried loaded kayaks over land.
For Horvat, the expedition was a wake-up call. It was also his first. The rapid dissolution of large floes the team witnessed did not match even the most pessimistic climate models. We are “changing the surface of the earth over the period of a human life,” said Horvat. He spoke about how few of his peers leave their labs: “There is very little wilderness exposure for scientists. I don’t know any climate scientist that’s done this.”
During the documentary, Diana Kushner—a farmer, expedition member, and Stephen Smith’s partner—likened the Arctic ice to “Earth’s white T-shirt.” When it’s hot outside, one does not wear black, she said. But that is just what the Earth is doing: As the atmosphere heats, the Arctic sheds high albedo ice for pitch-black sea.
Indeed, “Earth’s cooling system is rapidly becoming its heating system.” Because sea ice in the Last Ice Area is now thin and fragile, that ice is easily crushed when it gets moved around by winds and currents. In Nares Strait, the large multiyear-old ice floes are gone, so this means that those floes are also gone from the Arctic Ocean. Melting will only accelerate as individual ice floes are no longer big enough to plug the Strait. There's nothing to stop the frozen ocean from draining southward into warmer waters.
Watch the documentary here.