Tour of the Arctic (2/2) – from Greenland to Alaska | DW Documentary
This is a world of incredible natural beauty --- raw and hostile. One that knows no mercy. And where mistakes can have fatal consequences. Life here has always been a fight for survival. In a world where in summer, the sun never sets and in winter, the nights are full of magic and color. We are exploring the most remote locations in this inhospitable terr ain — from Greenland through the Northwest Passage to Alaska. We meet people who sense that their world is changing? and those who are changing it.
This is a world in which the future of humanity will be decided. the Arctic. While taking risky maneuvers at full speed, Åge Barseleisen feverishly looks for a passage through the ice. There’s ice coming. It’s a race against time. Sea ice.
So we’re looking for open water. A northeasterly wind that’s unusually powerful for early July drives large amounts of drift ice from the Arctic Ocean into the fjord The freezing headwind makes travel difficult and pushes the ice sheets closer and closer together, creating pack ice. After travelling almost 700 kilometers in the Scoresby Sound, we find ourselves stranded in the Arctic. Together with the Barselaisen family, in one
of the most isolated and inhospitable places on Earth. A week before we’d departed Iceland on a two-hour flight over the Arctic Ocean. Our destination: Ittoqqortoormiit — a village some 800 kilometers away from its closest neighbors. The descent in itself is breathtaking. On the shoreline of
one of the fjord’s branches, we land on a gravel runway. It was built by an American oil firm which withdrew from the development in 1990, but the runway remains. We have to continue our journey by boat, as there are no roads. The trip takes close to two hours. On a peaceful and beautiful July afternoon like this, who’d imagine that anything could go wrong? The colorful houses of Ittoqqortoormiit stand out like beacons between the rocks and the ice. We’re overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the Arctic. And its vastness confounds our senses.
The icebergs often as tall as skyscrapers! It’s more than 40 kilometers from here to the shoreline on the other side of the fjord. 350 people live in Ittoqqortoormiit; almost all are Inuit. Most of them work directly or indirectly subsidized by the Danish government to keep the settlement alive. There’s a church, hospital, sports center and a primary school here — along with what might be the world’s most spectacular soccer pitch. Its artificial turf is carefully manicured between the rubble and snow.
They’ve even just opened an outdoor pool for the children. It’s only the second one in all of Greenland. The kids splash around to the sound of techno music, even though the water’s a little chilly.
That still needs some improvement. How warm is the water? Around ten degrees. Ten degrees? -Yeah, ten. Isn’t it too cold for the kids? That’s cold, but we’re working on warmer. At the small weather station, they’re releasing a weather balloon. Like
they do every day at 11 each morning and night — at the same time as hundreds of weather stations around the world. Tore Andreasen runs the station. He’s lived in Ittoqqortoormiit for 46 years, but says things have changed dramatically here in recent years.
The weather systems have changed. The temperature, the humidity, the precipitation has changed. Everything has changed. It’s been a lot warmer and a lot more humid. A lot more
rain in summertime. The climate we have now is what they had a thousand kilometers south of us when I came. It’s quite a big change. Above the village there’s a cemetery — with a stunning view. Even if it’s getting warmer here, in the summer they still dig extra graves -- to be able to bury those who die in winter, when the ground is frozen solid.
Suddenly there’s excitement in the village. The men are loading their guns and everyone’s on their feet. People drop everything to go and watch. The narwhals are here.
Those who aren’t in the boats watch from the shoreline and tell the hunters which way to go. Time and again, the whales submerge — and the boats chase after them. The sound of large-caliber weapons resonates throughout the bay. The hunters fear the smell of the corpses could attract polar bears. To keep them away from the shoreline and the settlement, the dead whales are hauled onto an ice sheet and carved up there. Outside one of the cabins we meet Mette Barselaisen, who’s following the action with binoculars. Her husband Age and her
brother Agalu are taking part in the hunt. We ask her why people here are so crazy about narwhals. So, what role does narwhal hunting play for your community? It’s very important for our own supply for the whole year. You
eat the meat and you make oil from the skin fat, and the skin, you eat it. And if you’re good to do handicrafts, you can make jewelry from, you know, the tooth. Mette invites us to stay for lunch. Goulash is on the menu; it’s the children’s favorite. Mette tells us that much has changed here in recent years. And asks if we’d like to join them on a boat trip up the
fjord in the coming days. We travel almost 400 kilometers with them up the Scoresby Sound, at 50 or 60 kilometers an hour, navigating our way through the ice. After four hours of a very cold -- and for us, often nerve-wracking — journey, we take a break in stunning surroundings.
The silence is only broken by the sound of melting glaciers. While her youngest son Brian keeps an eye out for polar bears — which can appear out of nowhere at any time -- we ask Mette about the biggest changes she’s observed here in recent years. The glaciers, the last years, have been melting roughly?.like ten years ago until now, it can melt up to one kilometer.
Then, suddenly, two polar bears appear: a mother and her cub. A potentially extremely dangerous encounter — for both parties. So it’s lucky for us we’re sitting safely in our boat. And lucky for the polar
bears this year’s bag quota has already been reached. I don’t want to go nearby, because they have very huge claws. But I like the meat. As goulash, you know, you make small pieces of the meat and make a goulash out of it, with rice. It’s very good! Polar bear goulash! Our journey up the fjord continues. We’ve been travelling through this
magical world of ice for two days. But this isn’t a family holiday — even if it sometimes looks like it. Eight- year-old Brian drives us to our camp for the night, at full speed.
Isn’t Mette worried? I was afraid when he was five and six, because he’s still too little. But his father wanted him to learn to drive as early as possible. And did he already shoot? He knew how to shoot when he was four or five. As often as they can, they bring their children to the fjord. To teach
them how to survive here in the Arctic: how to feed themselves; how to hunt and fish, how to creep up on polar bears, seals and muskox. And how to adapt to the ever-changing world around them It have been a river here, but it’s all dried now. Before, we can get the water here, next to the camp. So now we don’t have more
snow and glacier up here in the mountains, and now it’s all dry. It’s because it’s warmer and we have a longer summer period. And the winter season, it’s warmer earlier, so the snow always melts.
The next morning we need to move fast?.a strong wind is coming up and that could prove dangerous. So we need to leave. We still have a 350 kilometer return trip ahead of us?.and then we find ourselves stranded in the Arctic. Mette’s brother Agalu has gone on ahead, crossing the ice floes, looking for a passage through the ice. How is it? Good? Not good.
Our biggest worry now is that something could happen to the boats. They risk being destroyed by drift ice. And without the boats there’s no way to get back. We have to turn around. In an ice-free bay we meet some hunters who are also stuck. We launch our drone to get a better overview of the situation. Agalu and the other hunters examine our images. It really doesn’t look good
— there’s thick pack ice all the way to horizon. We’re not going to get out of here so quickly. We set up camp and post guards — to watch out for polar bears. The hunters share their food with us. Mette cuts the narwhal skin and blubber into small strips to make it easier to chew.
It’s fresh, it’s caught yesterday? the place we should’ve gone. It tastes a bit like chewing gum. Yeah, it’s very good.
It’s good to keep us warm now, because we are staying out we don’t know how long. After being stuck here for two days, things suddenly move very quickly. The family has made a decision. Age tells us Agalu will bring us back: The three of us, the children and one hunter in one boat. Mette and Age want the children to get back to the village. It’s growing too cold out here and the polar bears pose an ever-present danger.
They plan to follow us as soon as there’s a clear path through the ice. Their boat is too big to haul over the ice. It’s a tiring and perilous journey back. Anyone who falls into the water here is unlikely to survive. It’s hard for us to judge exactly how thick the ice really is. We drag our boat over the pack ice.
All the time we’re afraid that the ice could crack or that someone could slip into the icy water. We make our way from ice floe to ice floe, taking advantage of every little ice-free passage to use the boat. We drag, push and pull — getting in and out of the boat for hours on end.
This isn’t normal for the middle of July. The new weather patterns are making life difficult for the Inuit. The knowledge they’ve acquired over many generations, which helps them predict weather conditions, is becoming unreliable. Did it happen to you before? No, that’s the first time for me. Really? Yeah. Late that evening, after hours crossing the ice, we’re in the clear! A helicopter arrives to pick us up. Eric, the local policeman, has come
say goodbye and make sure we’re OK. The narwhals are back in the bay. And, after two nights on the ice, Mette has also made it home. We leave Ittoqqortoormiit, deeply moved by its people and its natural beauty. The path to the landing strip is still blocked by ice. This is Yellowknife, Canada — at the military section of its airport. We’re travelling with the 2nd battalion of Quebec’s Royal 22nd Regiment — a unit which supports Canada’s Joint Task Force North. It’s been a long trip from Ittoqqortoormiit. Almost 8-thousand
kilometers, with stops in Quebec and Yellowknife, before we reach Cambridge Bay in the Canadian Arctic. We’re taking part in operation Nanook Nunakput. Its mission: to patrol the Northwest Passage. Canadian territory that could hardly
be more isolated. The two Griffon military helicopters fly low -- taking advantage of the element of surprise. You can see the vast area we have to cover up here in the North: there’s thousands of miles. And slow-moving ships can’t cover it all, so patrols like this are vital. We can keep track of what other vessels are operating in Canadian waters. The helicopters head out over the water. They have their sights set on
a cargo ship and radio the freighter to identify itself. The captain is surprised. He asks why the helicopter is there. He never dreamed two military helicopters would suddenly appear in the middle of the night. The pilots are amused. We ask the questions! The guy just wasn’t too clear on it. They may have been surprised by the close fly-by that we gave them and the mild interrogation. It’s not unheard of, for sure.
The freighter was properly registered, but the message is clear — anyone travelling through the Northwest Passage should expect to face questions. Back at command central, debriefings are taking place. Reconnaissance patrols are to be transferred to observation posts in the Northwest Passage — to monitor an area approximately the size of Germany. In order to maintain our sovereignty, like, during this time of the year there’s no ice, so there’s a lot more boat traffic. So
we want to make sure we can have people on the ground and in the air, with the air force support, to monitor any type of maritime activity. It’s also for the ships that didn't say they would come? Russian submarines? Yeah, there’s a difference between seeing a submarine or a fishing boat, right? So one of the two require?they require a different response. The base of their operations is known as CAM-MAIN. Located at Cambridge Bay, it’s part of the joint Canadian-American North Warning System. Roughly 2-thousand people live in Cambridge Bay. It’s a kind of rough-and-tumble Arctic frontier town in the middle of nowhere that’s kept alive with generous support from the Canadian government.
Most of the people here live from hunting and fishing, and government subsidies. Fishing for Arctic char is one of the few good- paying jobs here. People can earn around 4-thousand euros for two weeks’ work. But the fishing grounds are spread all over the Northwest Passage and are often only reachable by float plane.
At the dock in Cambridge Bay we meet some fishermen unloading their catch. We ask if they’ve encountered vessels in the Northwest Passage that have no business being there. I heard stories of our elders, out on boats. And they see something out in the distance, thinking it’s an island — and, all of a sudden, it just submerges, disappears. So, yes, out in the Coppermine area. We know, based on some sightings by other people, that the Russians do come in the Canadian Arctic, but that’s all we know. And it’s been in the news, so basically, you know. I know
the government of Canada, they’re trying to keep it low somehow, not make a big deal out of it, but I’m sure that they know a lot more than they say. At an observation post we meet the Commander of Joint Task Force North, Brigadier General Patrick Carpentier. He’s inspecting his troops, who are conducting surveillance in this isolated region. He explains how hard it is to maintain a presence throughout Canada’s North. If you take that area of land, it’s about the size of the continental US. So, in that area, there’s only 115-thousand people, that are about 72 different communities. So the challenges are
communication, transportation, infrastructure?Everything is a challenge in the North — and that’s not counting climate! His troops are always accompanied by a group of Arctic rangers, local Inuit who work with the military. They play an important role. They’re critical, because, if you think of the Arctic, it’s so big. The rangers are really the eyes and ears and the voice of the North. They give us a lot of situational awareness of what’s going on in the Arctic. The Canadian Armed Forces only have around 400 soldiers permanently stationed here in the North. So, they couldn’t do without the help of the Arctic rangers and the local population.
Along with two Arctic rangers and a reconnaissance patrol, we’re being transferred to an outpost — on a small, uninhabited island . The pilots ask us if we get airsick. We’re told to be honest, because lots of people start to feel queasy when the helicopter picks up speed. They fly low and fast.
For more than hour, we travel over rocky terrain, as well as countless lakes . Sometimes it feels like we could reach out and touch the ground! We have to disembark quickly. The pilots need to return to base. This is to be our camp for the next few days: a couple of tents on a small island in the middle of the Arctic. There are no trees or
bushes for protection. We’re fully exposed to the wind and weather, which often changes from one minute to the next. Night has fallen. On slightly higher ground, the first guards have taken
up position. Using infrared devices and powerful binoculars they search for hot spots on the icy waters. These can be even be detected from great distances away. Would you see a submarine coming if it’s up? If it’s up, we would see it. If it’s down, no we don’t. But I know that we have some specialists for submarines with us. Not here, but at the other place. But they don’t show us that: The next morning, this reconnaissance patrol is searching the horizon. They’ve just spotted a ‘foreign invader‘!
It's right there. We saw it coming this way so we turned around. It’s hard to see, but it’s right there. I can show you the picture. Holy c**p! He’s watching you guys. He says: Hi! Amy and Allen load their guns. The Canadian Arctic is Inuit territory. The soldiers are guests here — and unarmed. They don’t to be viewed as an occupying force. So, they leave it up to the rangers to defend them.
Ok. So what will you do then, if he comes? If it’s getting too close, maybe shoot it down. But, for now, the bear is nowhere in sight. Suddenly a dense fog moves in from the sea. Now it’s wet and cold — around 3 degrees Celsius. Allen says it could take a week for the fog
to lift. It looks like we’re, once again, trapped in the Arctic. This time on a small island with a grizzly bear! When it’s foggy, let’s say we’re completely fogged, most of the time they cannot really take off, because they can barely see themselves. So, if they cannot take off, they cannot land, right? So, they won’t take that risk. A few days later the skies have cleared and the helicopters can fly.
The Brigadier General comes for an inspection. He and his staff have one burning question: Any more bear sightings? No, we haven’t seen one since day 2. But of course it’s not bears that pose the biggest challenge here. They’re merely a tactical problem. The strategic challenge is that the North is extremely rich in resources and the immensity is incredible. So, to have a presence over such a large territory is an extreme challenge.
The Arctic boasts a wealth of natural resources: diamonds, copper, iron, oil, gas — and fish! And now the ice is melting faster and the ground is thawing, it’s getting easier to extract these treasures. They’re in great demand and only those who maintain a presence here can protect their interests. It’s a huge undertaking in Canada, the second-largest country on Earth. And a Herculean task up
here in the Far North at the end of the world.. We continue on our journey, travelling almost 2-thousand kilometers westwards to Fairbanks, Alaska. And, from there, another 800 kilometers to Deadhorse, by the Beaufort Sea.
It’s now early October and we’re on the Dalton Highway. Much of it is just a mix of mud and gravel. It’s been called one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
Crossing the Yukon River, we head northwards in the Arctic — following the route of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. And crossing the mighty Brooks Range, a thousand-kilometer long mountain range that runs right across northern Alaska. Halfway along the route we hit Coldfoot — little more than a gas station in the middle of the wilderness.
Until the mid-1990s, the Dalton Highway was closed to normal traffic. Anyone wanting to use it needed a special permit from the oil companies. Now truck drivers tell us they’re encountering more and more tourists. Most come here in winter to see the Northern Lights, but they often underestimate the risks.
As beautiful as it is, as nice as it is, to me it’s not worth it, ’cause it is very dangerous, you know. And especially coming unprepared. Just think about it, you might have to walk ten miles in this weather. I felt people come up here and they have nothing; they have light jackets, they have tennis shoes and it’s just not very smart. - It’s tourists.
Yeah, pretty much. We drive further into the mountains. There’s been a lot of snowfall in the last few days — unusual for early October. We stop off in Wiseman, a village that boomed during the gold rush. Everywhere you can see relics from the days when the Dalton Highway and the Trans- Alaska Pipeline were being built in the Arctic. Just 14 people still live in Wiseman, where the freezers look like this — and it’s only October. Here everything is pretty rustic?
In his cabin, Jack Reakoff is telling a group of Chinese tourists about life in the wilderness, and how he shoots moose and bears to survive. It’s a heavy caliber 8.6 mm. This is what the bullet looks like when it goes. The bullet hits the animal and opens up; it shot right through here, right through the lung. When the bullet goes through the lung, the heart continues to pump blood to the lung and all the blood keeps gushing out of the lung. Pretty soon you have no blood left and it’s dead.
But Jack tells us the hunting’s not as good as it used to be. I had a 15 day, climbed a lot of mountains. I looked at a lot of country with hardly anything in it. It makes it harder, makes it harder. Jack came to Wiseman in 1971 with his parents. His father helped
to build the Dalton Highway. Jack explains why there are practically no more moose up here in the woods. We’ve now had three deep snow years since 2004. One-point-four meters of snow annihilates the moose — especially when it melted on top and then froze. They’re breaking through the snow to their chest and cutting themselves up on the edge of the snow. The snow had thick crust like that: it was killing them. And it looks like this might be another bad year; there’s already too much snow for early October. The air is too warm and too humid
The moose population doesn’t have time enough to recover if deep snows occur every four or five years, as they have in the last two decades. Jack shows the Chinese tourists some mighty moose antlers -- a popular photo motif. We asked these visitors what brought them here to the Far North.
Chinese people become richer and richer right now and they want to see the outside world. But I’ve never seen so far. Hopefully I can see the aurora tonight. As they try to drive away, we hope they’ll get to see the Northern Lights tonight. The conditions are favorable. The night sky is clear---and full of stars. Suddenly the heavenly light show commences?gradually becoming more and more spectacular.
The next morning, we continue our northward journey towards the Arctic Ocean -- following the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The road is icy. For hours, we fight our way across the Brooks Range, which separates central Alaska from the North Slope region. At the northern foot of the Brooks Range lies the Toolik Field Station. Scientists from around the world come here to research the changes in the Arctic. Jeb Timm manages the station. He says they now have mosquitos and
snakes that can survive the winter here. That’s something new. There’s no denying climate change is real. It’s hard to argue with and I’m kind of in a weird spot. I’m surrounded by science; I grew up around science. But I’m also a
little bit of a redneck. You know, I like to hunt; I like to play on snow machines. But it’s hard to argue with the research that I see and the glaciers that I see disappearing firsthand. And, you know, just how much warmer our seasons are, it’s pretty obvious.
Jeb says it’s one thing that it’s getting warmer. But what will happen as a result of this will be the really big problem. There’s enough permafrost up here that if that thick surface layer -- that 20-, 30-meter layer -- melts, the whole North Slope is gonna drop about 30 feet or 10 meters. He says it hasn’t got to that yet, but things are getting critical. He stresses that he’s no expert. He suggests we talk to Vladimir
Romanovsky, one of the world‘s foremost permafrost researchers. Romanovsky, who advises governments and companies, says the situation’s quite clear. You already have 35 years of measurements. And during this period of time, we started this permafrost temperature of about minus 8; now it’s minus 4 on the North Slope of Alaska. About from 2013 to 2014 we have a new, really strong wave of warming, where whole sites in interior Alaska show very substantial warming. Should this continue, it could also have serious consequences for energy supplies around the globe — as more and more of the world’s oil and gas supplies come from the Arctic.
In many permafrost areas, distribution of ice is very uneven. There are some big chunks of almost pure ice there and when these chunks are melting the surface subsides, developing very, very uneven surfaces. And there is many occasions already exist, where this subsidence already is threatening the oil extraction infrastructure. Heading north, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline leads us out of the mountains and across the frozen Arctic tundra. A region of stunning natural beauty. Then we pull into Deadhorse — and the contrast couldn’t be greater. It’s
one big muddy mess?.and much warmer than further south. The Dalton Highway ends in Deadhorse, at its only shop: the General Store. Terry Underhill is one of the few women in Deadhorse. She runs the store and — like everyone here — comes from the south. She flies in
to work for two weeks, then has two weeks off. That’s the rhythm of life here. She tells us she’s a big fan of Donald Trump, like everyone here. We ask why. Obama made it so you can’t drill offshore, which killed us. And he
outlawed a lot of stuff. He put a lot of regulations on everything, which made it to where they couldn’t do anything. And then when Trump came along and lifted all the regulations and let us drill offshore again, everything started opening up again. So, it was almost dead. It was like a ghost town. But now Deadhorse has been brought back to life. And work has returned. The workers’ camps are fully booked. The huge containers stand
on stilts — like everything here that’s built on or in the permafrost. Because the land here lies just above sea level -- and in summer the upper layers of permafrost keep melting more and more — gravel is spread to stabilize the ground. The question is: How long will all this hold? All this infrastructure was built to extract more material, which will be eventually be burned and it will accelerate warming. Which will increase the rate of thawing of permafrost and will make more and more problems for the infrastructure, which was designed and built to extract these goods. So that’s the kind of irony here. We board a private plane for supplies, to get a better overview of the situation. The oil companies won’t let us film their operations,
even though we’d approached them weeks ago. Over hundreds of kilometers, huge plants come in to view — built into the slowly warming permafrost. All connected by the pipeline which runs through this swampy landscape? Even offshore, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, there are drilling platforms. Bob, our pilot, tells us normally there’d be ice here. But he says this
year things have changed: Is this normal or is this unusual? No, it’s very unusual. It’s the first year that I have not seen the ice all summer. Bob says it keeps getting warmer here. We wonder if the instability of the ground isn’t already causing problems. Are there not already any effects already on the infrastructure and the oil fields? Yes, but it’s not official information, let’s say. And they ask us not to talk. But, yes, they have problems. And that’s why
maybe they’re selling. They’re selling --- BP is gone from the North Slope. Oil giant BP is withdrawing from Alaska entirely — even though more and more oil fields are being discovered and opened up for drilling. Our journey around the Arctic Circle ends here, in the Alaskan oil fields. For some, they’re the promise of a brighter future; for others, they’re part of the problem.
We’ve travelled thousands of kilometers through this immense, isolated region — a world that’s warming more quickly than any other on Earth. A world that will determine the future of humanity. The huge demand for raw materials and climate change are making life more unpredictable by the day. Should the permafrost and ice crust disappear, our world will be a different one. And the knowledge acquired here over the generations is already losing its significance.
Here, in the Arctic!