Ice and Sky
Hardly anybody knows this about me, but when I was thirteen, I fell in love with Antarctica. An unusual place to fall in love with, but it was all because of my 8th grade teacher whom I adored. I had her jointly for English and History and we did projects on topics that blended history, English, creativity, drama and even cooking. We did a whole project on Antarctica; read poems, read the journal of Robert Scott, who died before getting to the South Pole, read “Alone” by Richard Byrd and zeroed in on the historic race back in the early 1900’s to get to the Pole first. Images of Antarctica were plastered all over the back school bulletin board. We immersed ourselves in this vast Continent; in its landscape of huge glaciers, star-filled night skies and wondrous penguins, seals, whales, walruses and albatrosses. From ever onward, I have always been fascinated by this great and beautiful land mass. It came alive for me.
So recently when a friend invited me to see the documentary called “Ice and Sky” about the explorations of the French glaciologist, Claude Lorius, who journeyed into Antarctica more than sixty years ago, I jumped at the invitation. As we also discovered in the film, his research into Antarctica’s frozen land gave us the first clear evidence of man-made global climate change.
The film begins with these words spoken by Claude Lorius, now a man of 82 years old. “In my lifetime I have seen how man, by burning oil, wood and coal, has been changing the earth’s climate. I traveled back thousands of years to check whether what I’d discovered wasn’t just a quirk of nature.”
And thus begins the film that takes us back with archival footage to when Claude was 23 years old in the 1950’s and first began his adventure to the ends of earth in his quest as a scientist to gather meteorological data. It was post WWII when a strong desire to understand coupled with powerful new machinery, as a result of the War, was now being applied to scientific research
The film begins with young Claude spending a year at the French research base, Charcot Station, with two other colleagues. They lived in a small underground ice bunker; experienced the joy of 24 hour camaraderie, became astute students of ice and snow and were taken in by the raw beauty and silence of the land. It wasn’t easy, but as he says, it was a life-defining experience, creating a “wild empathy” for the planet we live on and changing his life forever.
It was the quest particularly for knowledge that kept Claude Lorius coming back again and again to Antarctica; each time with more people from different nations and with more sophisticated equipment. On his second sojourn, Lorius describes that it was often hell to be there – no one was ever warm, people went to bed with wet clothing – it was smelly and there was always the possibility of falling through an ice crevice. Why then did they bear the unbearable? He said to “describe and understand.” It was the quest for knowledge that kept them going.
The film shows how the Antarctic teams began to drill ice core sheets – initially not going very deep – and found that the ice cores preserved annual layers, just like tree rings, making it simple to reconstruct the past climates from years ago. Furthermore in 1969, Lorius was part of a major breakthrough when it was discovered that the ice core sheets contained trapped air bubbles which when “decoded” could tell us how much co2 plus other greenhouse gases were present in the past and essentially compare past concentrations of gases to temperatures.
From the 1970’s, rigorous drilling began to retrieve ice core samples. One article on ice cores said, “Through analysis of ice cores, scientists learn about glacial-interglacial cycles, changing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and climate stability…” (http://www.antarcticglaciers.org/glaciers-and-climate/ice-cores/ice-core-basics/) The greenhouse gases always linked co2 levels with rises in temperature. This was the beginning of our understanding how CO2 is linked to global warming.
As the film progresses, more sophisticated machinery and expertise come to Antarctica. In the coldest place imaginable and most inaccessible, at the Soviet base Vostok in 1984 (in the middle of the cold war) Russians, Americans and French came together and meticulously drilled ice core sheets that eventually enabled them to go back over 400,000 years. We witness an ecstatic portrait of these dedicated men, who lived in such extreme conditions and gave everything to “describe and understand” our planet and its climate. These ice core sheets definitively revealed the link between co2 and the rise in temperature.
The film does not focus largely on climate change and global warming, but it is always in our background consciousness. We see Claude Lorius, now 82, sitting or walking in Antarctica with glaciers melting and burnt forests. We definitely feel the weight on this man’s shoulders after all his research and labors of love.
At the end of the film, Claude expresses both his weighted feelings, as well as and perhaps more importantly, his faith that mankind will respond and face this adversity. As he says, “All that is left is to act.”