Tour of the Arctic (1/2) – from Svalbard to Siberia | DW Documentary
Breathtakingly beautiful. Yet brutal. Over the generations, the people who live here have learned how to survive in this inhospitable landscape. We travel through the Arctic. From Svalbard to Eastern Siberia.
We want to learn how people’s lives are changing in this remote part of the world. Cruising through the Arctic Ocean at 20 knots an hour. We’re aboard the Sapphire Princess, one of the big cruise ships now touring the Arctic with increasing frequency. An Arctic adventure has never been easier or more comfortable — provided you’re willing to share the experience with many others. Just before 7 a.m. we
cross into the Arctic Circle — and see its rugged nature without being exposed to it. As adventures go it’s “Arctic light”. Though that’ll soon change. Why did you get up so early in the morning? To go to the gym.
Aah, you’re coming from the gym! Yeah, but I didn’t realize it was gonna look like this. And it’s fantastic! You know, it’s inspirational. It really helps you to get closer to nature. And that’s a good thing. If people thought more about that they wouldn’t be tossing their garbage around and driving big SUVs.
My wife wants to see the Northern Lights. I hope she won‘t be disappointed. Does that mean you’ll stay up all night? I won’t. She can!
The Arctic landscape is harsh and forbidding. Yet it’s one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. The weather in the far North is temperamental. The ship with its 18
decks starts to rock from side to side. The swimming pool is transformed into a wave pool. Below deck they’re still cooking up a storm. Due to the rough weather we’ve lost our appetites. But we still meet with Stephen Reynolds, who shows us around his domain. With a twinkle in his eye, he says a few guests will likely leave the ship heavier than when they boarded it.
One: We need to make it look like our presentation. Yes? You’ve got a bit of the potato left. That’s good.
OK. Happy with that? Arctic cuisine's not what the passengers want. In general, the British market that we’ve just been in, they still want to come for their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. They want their fried egg and bacon. The Danzls like to travel in style. We meet the couple from Tyrol for
an aperitif. They have taken cruises for years- This is their 23rd. Does it bother them that this kind of holiday is increasingly viewed as environmentally unfriendly? Life is a compromise. On the one hand, you want to see places. On the other there are environmental problems.. But
this makes the region more popular, so people see how it’s changing. It’s important the region become better known, but that’s only possible if lots of people can visit it. The cruise ship industry is enticing people to come to the Arctic while it’s still intact. Its ships are bringing guests to ever more remote locations. To ensure that this booming business doesn’t fall victim to environmental misgivings, companies are trying to go green. On board, trash is separated for recycling. And some ships are now
running on liquefied petroleum gas instead of heavy crude oil or marine diesel fuel. Travelling through these icy waters poses particular dangers, Captain Paolo Ravera tells us. So he and his crew have gone through special navigational training. Full of water navigation. Icy water. We appear yet not to have a lot of drifting ice, but there are places where there is drifting ice. So we have to be careful, because ice is like rocks that float. A small iceberg or growlers can actually damage the
propellers. And if we go into quite a high concentration of ice with the ship itself, we can actually damage the hull. Unless it’s a ship which is built for icy water, which this is not. This is
for normal icy conditions, but not very thick and dense. This evening we catch a glimpse of one of the Arctic’s most fleeting attractions: the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis once inspired belief in the supernatural. Now it’s something tourists film and post on social media.
We leave the ship’s warm comfort zone. From Alta we continue on to the Svalbard archipelago. In summer, huge cruise ships come, carrying thousands of passengers. In the off-season, smaller ships dock here not far from the North Pole It’s no longer just well-equipped explorers who are venturing this close to the North Pole. The number of tourists has doubled over the last decade.
Each year 70-thousand visitors descend on Longyearbyen, a town of some 2-thousand residents. For the locals, tourism has become a reliable source of revenue now that mining is in decline. Still, it has its challenges. Svalbard’s search and rescue team say the number of distress calls has increased — along with people’s expectations. We accompany the air rescue team on a training mission. Wearing a protective suit is mandatory. Should we fall into the
icy cold water, it would keep us from getting hypothermia — at least for a few minutes. Snorre Hagen is in charge of the two Puma helicopters stationed on Svalbard. Each of them can transport as many as 20 people in an emergency Svalbard is an Arctic desert, yet it’s growing ever wetter.
There’s more rain and less snow. We’ve been here for quite a few years and it’s noticeable that all the glaciers are getting smaller and retreating. The temperature on Svalbard is increasing quite a lot on average.
The captain of this expedition vessel has agreed to take part in the rescue exercise. As has our cameraman, who’s now being lowered on a rope. The ship’s crew also takes part in the exercise. They know the
importance of such maneuvers in an emergency. After a little refreshment, it’s back to work. If a ship gets in trouble, Snorre’s crew rescues the passengers one by one — by helicopter. Once they’ve all been evacuated, there’s still another problem to deal with. A shipwreck full of diesel, stranded in an
extremely fragile ecosystem. To give guests an unforgettable experience, Snorre says some captains take big risks in this dangerous region. The rescuers must cover vast distances. He finds these cruise ships most problematic. The thing is that we should always be able to help, but it might take a lot longer time than we want to. So it’s all a matter
of?.It’s a bit harsh to say, but it’s a matter of getting the rescue done before people die. So if we start to say, yeah, we’re going to rescue a ship with 7-thousand people on board, it might take a week. People here say that tourism needs to be steered in the right direction, to ensure that Svalbard’s spectacular nature is protected. And that all visitors return home safely. Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard, but the archipelago is a visa-free zone. Russia has an Arctic outpost here, in Barentsburg.
To reach it, we must take a boat. There’s not a single road leading to Barentsburg. This sign in Cyrillic is a reminder of bygone times: ‘Our goal?communism’. The Soviet spirit where geopolitics has long spoken another language.
Valeriy comes from Eastern Ukraine, a region plagued by divisions and a war backed by pro-Russian forces. He works on Svalbard for a state-owned Russian coal company. My wife stayed at home. I’m here alone. There aren’t any jobs for
women here. They can’t earn much money here. Mining coal is hardly profitable anymore. But prospectors are drawn by other natural resources. It’s believed there are huge oil- and gas reserves off Svalbard’s coasts. Norway and Russia disagree on who they belong to. Russia’s Consul General on Svalbard serves us tea. Sergey
Gushchin says his country has a good, neighborly relationship with NATO member Norway. Such conciliatory tones are rare in Russian diplomacy these days. Gushchin says the Arctic climate is too harsh for conflicts. Though the friendship
proves short-lived when it comes to oil: Do you have any idea what huge profits that would generate? In the billions. Everything here will turn to gold — if the Russian interpretation is applied. That’s why we haven’t been able to come to an agreement with the Norwegians about this. Once an oil or gas field is found here, the
legal disputes will certainly start. A few nautical miles away, in the Barents Sea, Russia stages military maneuvers. That fuels worries here that worse things than legal action could happen— even if on the hillside they invoke ‘world peace’. To find out what happens to a remote northern town when fossil fuel deposits are found just offshore, we pay a visit to Hammerfest. In winter, Norway’s north is plunged into darkness for two long months. So for a long time, people were leaving in droves.
But then along came ‘Snow White’ — that’s what they call the natural gas field off the coast from Hammerfest. Since 2007, Snow White has been a fairytale dream come true for the town’s finances. And the high wages paid have attracted many skilled workers. This is a good morning for Anna. Her little daughter Ava doesn’t make a fuss when she’s dropped off at daycare. Afterwards, Anna heads straight to the office. Her partner is currently working
offshore, as always in two-week long stints. Sometimes you have a meeting that you can’t miss and then you really have a challenge. Balancing motherhood with a career at Equinor, Norway’s state- owned energy company is no easy feat. For Anna it’s not just a question of time, but of ideology, too. She drives a hybrid car, avoids
plastic and recycles her waste. Protecting the environment is important to her, as it is to most Norwegians. Yet she works for a company that makes its money from extracting fossil fuels.
The 21-year-old assures us there’s no contradiction there. At this plant, Equinor liquefies natural gas and puts it into tanks. It also operates a pilot project.
The firm separates the CO2 from the natural gas and pumps it back into the ocean floor. This process reduces the amount of harmful greenhouse gases making their way into the Earth’s atmosphere. Norway cites such projects as proof of its green credentials. Yet it continues to award exploration drilling licenses in the Arctic Ocean, and its finances count on petrodollars. Environmental activists call that hypocritical. Anna considers their criticism unfounded. Yet she’s used to
having to justify working for the industry. People might think that you would be a hypocrite if you think about the climate crisis and things, and still work in the industry. But I think that my company is a place where we grow better fossil energy. Banning Norway’s profitable fossil fuel extraction wouldn’t change anything, Anna says. Customers would just buy their gas elsewhere. And that wouldn’t benefit the climate at all.
Her mother has always supported her choice. She has always been a tough girl. She was early pointing out: “I want to work in that company. This is my dream.”
Norwegians are serious about protecting the environment. However, they’re unwilling to give up selling oil and gas any time soon, because that’s what’s made Norway into one of the richest countries worldwide.. We continue our journey eastwards — from Hammerfest to Bovanenkovo, on the Yamal Peninsula. In the language of the indigenous Nenets people, ‘Yamal’ means “the end of the world”. But now the peninsula is the site of one of
Russia’s largest economic projects. We’re just in time to witness them tapping a new gas source. Russian energy giant Gazprom has developed the Bovanenkovo gas field in record time. Sergey Silantyev won Gazprom’s Best Welder title in 2015. He’s accustomed to metal, fire and heat. But
here he must deal with other elements, too. “Wind and frost. Sometimes it’s minus 15 degrees Celsius. In those temperatures you try not to work outside. But sometimes there’s an
accident and you have to go out and work — whether you want to or not” Gazprom has created a small town for 3-thousand workers, in this secluded part of Siberia. We were only allowed to visit Bovanenkovo after receiving special permission from the state-owned Russian company. It took weeks of emails and phone calls to get it. The workers are made to feel like heroes. They’re serving their country’s aim to make the Arctic lucrative. But Sergey tells us the main reason they’re all here: On average workers in northern Siberia earn roughly double the amount compared to the rest of Russia. Here they work for 30 days straight, then they have 30 days off.
Sergey’s family lives a day’s journey away from Bovanenkovo. Sometimes it’s hard, especially at the end of your stint. Your morale sinks and the monotony gets to you. But you pay a price for everything in this life. So this is quite OK.
The warming of the Arctic is a boon for Russia’s economic ambitions The section of the Northeast Passage along Russia’s coast is now ice-free more often, making it easier to export Siberian gas. Goods coming from China by boat can also reach Europe quicker. And Russia plans to profit from this. The Port of Sabetta is pivotal to this strategy. But that doesn’t leave much room for these nomadic reindeer herders.
In the shadow of the drilling rigs, they fear the loss of their homeland. We’re visiting the Vanuito family. They belong to the indigenous people known as the Nenets. They’ve lived here for centuries and are perfectly adapted to the inhospitable conditions in the Arctic. But now these nomadic people must contend with industrial sites, train tracks and streets. Drilling is underway for oil and gas on the Nenets’ grazing land, endangering their traditions and culture.
You call this a fridge, I call it a ‘parya’. It stands on legs like this, so we can stack meat, fish and so forth up there. Then they stay fresh for a long time. The gas companies now have a Nenets commissioner, who acts as a mediator between heavy industry and the indigenous people. It’s good PR.
Hello, nice to see you. Is she yours? How many do you have? Sometimes the companies donate firewood or a generator to the Nenets. Though Grigoriy tells us this hardly compensates for what they’ve lost due to industrial expansion. It‘s not good. Why? Shouldn’t they help? They should help. But we’ve surrendered so much of our land to the gas workers. There’s no longer enough
grazing land — not here nor in the south. A source of food, clothing and transportation: reindeer are everything to the Nenets. The Vanuitos have 200 of them. But times are changing. The winters are getting warmer. And the animals are growing thin, as they have a hard time finding food. Without snow it’s harder to keep the reindeer together. They go
off in all directions. And groups break off from the herd. The Vanuitos will soon set off to their winter grazing lands — like every year. But their route will be different?. determined more and more by the economic interests of the distant capital. We continue on our Arctic adventure. From Sabetta we travel
to the settlement of Chersky, in the middle of the Arctic summer. In the tundra, it can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the summertime. Yet, with every step we take it gets cooler. And it smells of fish. Because, despite its beauty, this serves as a freezer for the local people.
In sub-zero temperatures, the remains of plants and dead animals from past eras don’t decompose. The permafrost functions like an icy safe, keeping its store of carbon locked up. Double the amount of carbon dioxide contained in the entire Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a ticking, climatic time bomb. Sergey Zimov thinks he knows how to keep it from going off.
But first, the Russian scientist wants to show us the problem. He takes us for a ride on the Kolyma river, which is frozen over for most of year. We hit a sandbank and are stuck. Sergey Zimov, a highly regarded
member of the Russian Academy of Sciences has to get out and push. Our cameraman steers, while I film. After more than four hours, we reach ice-cliffs. But the sound of running water soon makes it clear: Siberia’s permafrost is melting. These microbes sleep close to 50 thousand years. Now they wake
up and I hear they start to breathe. And produce smell. The organisms start eating right away, and in doing so they transform carbon into carbon dioxide. In our area there’s so much of it that Europe’s climate will become unbearable if it all thaws out. The speed at which the ground is releasing greenhouse gases is exceeding scientists’ most dire predictions. Back to Sergey’s plan. Large creatures once roamed the Mammoth Steppe.
We collect evidence of that within minutes, surrounded by swarms of mosquitos. The remains of bison, horses and woolly mammoths. Everywhere people appear unspoiled nature disappears. In Russia there’s still a lot of open spaces. It’s our duty to restore the natural variety that our forefathers witnessed. Zimov is a scientist who wants to put his theories into practice.
So, over two decades ago, he began resurrecting the Ice Age with his Pleistocene Park. Together with his son Nikita, he chopped down trees and planted ancient grasses. Then they introduced yaks and bison. The herbivores are tasked with a huge responsibility: slowing the pace of climate change. In December, a thick blanket of snow insulates the ground from the cold. The horses, on the hunt for grass, dig around in the snow and tramp it down. This allows the permafrost to freeze
more thoroughly, which protects it from thawing out in the summer. The animals pack down the earth, which is then able to store the cold better. At least that’s the Russians’ basic hypothesis. Sergey Zimov puts it more bluntly. He calls his park a battlefield. The fight is between an eco-system that’s ill-equipped to combat climate change and the ice age one he aims to resurrect. His experiment has drawn scientists from around the world, including a German team that’s examining the grasses the Zimovs have introduced. They’re trying to measure the levels of
environmentally harmful gasses here. We assume the whole thing has a much more active circulatory system or exchange with the atmosphere. But that ultimately the ground absorbs more carbon, due to more photosynthesis and the more active grasses that grow here. The Zimovs say the ground at their Pleistocene Park is already retaining the cold better. The Russian republic of Sakha is sparsely populated. In summer,
most of the people here live from fishing. In winter, they hunt muskrat and ermine. Leonid and Sergey share a lifelong friendship.
But they have different views on climate change. No, I don’t believe in it. Period. Nothing’s changed. Everything’s the same as always. Yet, just months before, the banks of permafrost behind Leonid’s house melted — causing an entire lake to slide into the Kolyma river. There are billions of lakes like that, where the water flows in or out. That’s normal. It doesn’t have any effect on nature. On my
life, yes. But not on nature. Zimov says that, long ago, some people refused to believe the Earth was round. Today, some refuse to believe climate change is happening. Or it simply doesn’t bother them.
Russians don’t fear global warmig. They’ll say: We’re looking forward to it and preparing for it. The Europeans, Americans, North Africans and Asians must sound the alarm: those already feeling the negative effects of global warming.
The Zimovs aim to recreate the steppe landscape that existed in the Arctic 12 thousand years ago. A return to the ice age! They want to create an ecosystem that can regulate itself: Whether to live or die. Eat or be eaten. Ultimately, I let a lion or a tiger in here and say: Now this your park. Then I turn around and leave. That’s a joke, but I do want the system to become balanced, resistant and expand on its own beyond our current borders.
Sergey can even imagine that, one day, woolly mammoths will be grazing here alongside the bison. I don’t want to leave my grandchildren and great- grandchildren this sad northern landscape in which only mosquitoes feel at home. I want to leave them the species-rich nature of our forefathers. The kind of nature that stabilizes the climate and feeds millions of people.
Sergey has often been accused of playing God. But he argues it’s just the opposite: He’s simply trying to restore what humanity began destroying centuries ago. The last stage of our journey takes us to Chukotka in Russia’s Far East. From the town of Anadyr, we’ll travel to Vankarem, with a stop in Egvekinot. According to Siberian superstition, you shouldn’t photograph a helicopter just before take off. But we can’t resist taking a shot when no one’s looking.
People here tell us the Mi-8 is Russia’s most reliable helicopter. But, as passengers, we can’t help but feeling that it’s rather reluctant to remain airborne. Still, the view out the window quickly makes up for that.. After an hour and a half , we land in Egvekinot. Another storm’s brewing, so we change modes of transport — from a helicopter to a triple axle jeep.
We’ll need the 6-wheel drive. North of the Arctic Circle, the roads come to an end. We’re travelling 200 kilometers as the crow flies; our average speed is just 11 kilometers an hour.
As the uppermost layer of the permafrost has thawed, driving here is like taking a mud bath. Sometimes the riverbed isn’t as bumpy as the road running alongside it. At some point we stopped counting the number of flat tires . There’s just one settlement along the route. At the winter quarters of these nomadic reindeer herders, our team attracts a fair bit of attention.
They rarely receive visitors. But music is a universal language. We’re in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, home to the indigenous Chukchi people. Double the size of Germany, it has just 50-thousand residents. During the night, our drivers get hungry. In the early morning hours, we reach our destination: Vankarem. Only 180 people live here. But every year they’re inundated with
visitors: several thousand walruses. We spend the next few days with Sergey Kavry. A member of the indigenous Chukchi people, he belongs to a family of marine hunters. He wants to pass on his knowledge to his nephew Yuri. As soon as the weather improves, they plan to go hunting together. Sergey tells us that the Chukchi live from walruses. He takes us to see
their colony. Sergey has noticed changes to the marine mammals’ rhythm of life. He says the walruses, which can weigh several tons, are spending longer times on land. Lounging around on the ice is no longer an option. The ice disappears earlier and it keeps retreating. But the
walruses need to have somewhere to rest. They take a holiday with us in Vankarem, from August to October. But panic keeps breaking out among the walruses. Often they trample one another to death. To document the fatalities, Sergey must free their bodies which are frozen to the ground.
The extensive spread of civilization in the Arctic, the use of the Northeast Passage, the increase in military technology and even tourism are possible causes. We need rules and regulations that help the walruses and reduce their panic. Another reason why walruses get spooked can be seen up on the cliff. Sergey says he’s counted some 200 polar bears around Vankarem.
The Chukchi have always lived alongside polar bears, so Sergey knows when it’s best just to leave. The polar bear is suddenly looking too interested in us. In our religion, we believe that you’re descended from an animal. My brother, for example, descends from a polar bear. They told me, to my great disappointment, that I’m the descendant of a wolf.
Not long ago, a polar bear scented something edible right in front of Sergey’s kitchen window. The more their habitat melts away, the closer these predators get to humans. That’s why even the smallest children here learn how to use a flare gun. Once a year, Sergey pays a visit to the primary school in Vankarem.
Here he teaches children how to avoid a confrontation with a bear. A bear! A bear, right. And who can tell me which direction the bear went? North. Children can go to school in Vankarem until fifth grade. After that, they must attend boarding school, far from home. People here say that, during that time, they often
forget their own culture and language. Vankarem’s only general store offers everything from cheese to shoes. But no alcohol — at least not officially. They fear that, in this harsh climate, people will try to drown their sorrows in drink. There’s a saying in Chukotka: Here the weather’s bad one month of the year, very bad for two months and for nine months it’s awful! Yuri lives in the town most of the time. He works as a heating
technician, and has a wife and child. I don’t know what it is, but something keeps drawing me back here. Here I forget my fear and my sorrows. For Yuri, today is a special day: He’ll be leading the harpoon team for the first time.
People here go for months in winter without seeing the sun. But these men tell me nothing compensates for that better than walrus meat. They also say it’s safer to kill the animals in the water than on land. As indigenous people, the Chukchi are permitted to hunt walruses — to meet their own personal needs. Even though they are faced with extinction. Sergey says that his people are also threatened with extinction. Yet, unlike the walruses, the Chukchi don’t have a lobby.
Whether in this region or any other, the few indigenous peoples on this Earth have never inflicted great harm on nature. And that’s something you can’t say of white people. Our journey along the Arctic Circle ends here, where only the Bering Strait separates Russia from Alaska. We’ve fought our way through thousands of kilometers of this bleak and inhospitable landscape. People here have long braved the elements and forces of nature. But now they’re confronted with
immense changes which will alter their lives, their homeland and our world forever.