In Review: Antarctic Edge: 70° South

A beautifully filmed journey to the bottom of the globe reveals new risks to the planet

There’s an old saying: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, here’s a film about a few people who are doing something about extreme weather. Every spring (in the Southern Hemisphere) oceanographers and ecologists of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project make the arduous journey to Palmer Station in the West Antarctic Peninsula. The area has been described as “the fastest winter-warming place on Earth,” and because of that unfortunate distinction it is among the best places on the planet to study the impacts of global climate change.

photo of a tiny boat zipping toward an ice sheetFirst Run Features photoA scene from Antarctic Edge: 70° South, a film by Dena Seidel

For the first time since LTER was established at the remote Palmer outpost by the United States National Science Foundation in 1990, a crew of filmmakers were allowed to accompany LTER team members to Antarctica. The resulting documentary film – Antarctic Edge: 70° South – is impressive. Director Dena Seidel and her crew have made one of the most informative films shot on location in the polar regions since Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking Eskimo epic Nanook of the North was made at the Canadian Arctic in 1922. But instead of focusing on human inhabitants, Antarctic Edge: 70° is primarily concerned with the West Antarctic Peninsula’s penguins, whales, elephant seals, and seabirds as they confront global warming.

With a “you-are-there” vibe Seidel’s digital cameras transport viewers to the world’s final (if no longer fully frozen) frontier, one that’s sometimes literally off the charts. Various peninsula sites are still designated on maps as “PA” and “PD”: Position Approximate or Position Doubtful. The documentary, funded in part by National Science Foundation, opens with this worrisome caption, “May 2014: Scientists declared West Antarctic ice sheet melt unstoppable.” Throughout the film members of the interdisciplinary team of scientists explain the implications of that fact, which usually come across as dire pronouncements.

Biological oceanographer Oscar Schofield, who made his first Antarctic excursion in 1987, described the continent then as being “the land of the gods… like no other place on Earth.” But now the place is changing. The season for growing winter sea ice at the West Antarctic Peninsula is now, astonishingly, three months shorter per year. Antarctic Edge points out this reduction in ice has the potential to not only drastically affect the area’s sea, land and air creatures, but the entire planet, as well. Ice reflects sunlight, and so the loss of ice means that the region absorbs more heat, leading to even further ice melt, which can then impact the entire climate system. According to the film, temperatures on the peninsula have increased by 11 degrees Fahrenheit during the past 50 years, a rate six times greater than the global average.

Although Seidel’s crew generally uses digital gear, to visualize complex concepts Antarctic Edge uses proficient-looking animation. Another cinematic technique the documentary deploys is fast-motion photography. Using “fly-on-the-wall” camera techniques, the film records the scientists’ work and leisure and wildlife monitoring activities. Above all, Edge reveals the breathtaking scenery surrounding the research station, and in doing so draws upon a variety of film genres, such as the nature documentary Disney once specialized in and which PBS’ Nova now exemplifies. With its deft deployment of news clips depicting catastrophic climate events – from Typhoon Haiyan and fires blazing across Australia’s Outback – the low budget Antarctic Edge also has the sensibility of a big budget Hollywood disaster flick.

movie poster for the film Antarctic Edge: 70 South

What most distinguishes the filmis its often exquisite, eye popping cinematography of the most remote, inaccessible places on Earth, where it takes longer to travel to than it does to reach the moon. The breathtaking images of cavorting elephant seals, penguins pecking at camera lenses, humpbacks riding the waves, and, last but not least, the empty polar scenery, make the strongest case for protecting these species, waters, air and land imperiled by a climate change.

The LTER team and filmmakers spent about six weeks at Palmer and aboard the National Science Foundation’s icebreaker, the RV Laurence M. Gould (named after a scientific explorer of the Arctic and Antarctic), which transported the voyagers to the furthest fringe of the peninsula, Charcot Island. This was the most dangerous leg of their polar odyssey. Since Charcot is the most southern portion of the terrain LTER is surveying, it is the least affected by global warming. Once deployed on their zodiac to Charcot, the scientists risked the prospect of being iced in.  

LTER’s detailed database of weather changes is a powerful tool in combating the big lies of climate change deniers, those paid pimps of energy corporations hired to sow doubt by their secretive sponsors, planet be damned. While some eco-warriors such as Greenpeace choose to, for example, save the whales via militant, daring direct actions, LTER’s zooplankton ecologist Debbie Steinberg, biological oceanographer Hugh Ducklow, and wildlife ecologist Jennifer Mannas, aim to protect and preserve Antarctica and its denizens by collecting scientific facts and figures.

In doing so, LTER’s mild mannered soldiers of science can authoritatively warn their fellow earthlings about the ongoing and future perils that Antarctic ice melt can cause the rest of the globe. As one of the researchers cautions at the end of the film: “If we don’t learn from this data we could be like the Adelie Penguins at Palmer,” whose populations have declined by up to 90 percent.

The sublime if threatened eco-system portrayed in Antarctic Edge: 70° may appear to be unearthly, but its scientists are very human. Call them “Nanooks of the Earth,” who have embarked on a sacred mission to ensure the survival of Antarctica and, indeed, of our entire treasured but troubled terrestrial orb that seems to be spinning out of control.

Antarctic Edge: 70° opens April 17 at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema. Dena Seidel and special guests will make personal appearances at the 7:00 p.m. April 17 and at the 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. screenings on April 18.

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