A frozen planet under threat

Posted by jossg - 26 October 2011 at 11:14am - Comments
Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord in Greenland
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace / Nick Cobbing
An iceberg weathered by the strong Arctic winds and currents floats in Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord, Greenland

Like millions of people I have the next few Wednesday evenings mapped out already - I’ll be watching David Attenborough’s groundbreaking new series Frozen Planet. In the tradition of Planet Earth and Human Planet, this new BBC production is bringing extreme environments into living rooms across the world, with unforgettable sequences that take the viewer to the ends of the earth and into the habitats of extraordinary species.

It’s breathtaking stuff, and for me it takes me back to an Arctic I left just weeks ago. In late summer I sailed to 81 degrees north on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, from which polar scientists conducted ground-breaking new research into the rapidly melting sea ice.

As we steamed ever northwards I was struck by the description of one reporter who joined the trip who wrote what he and the rest of us could see as we stood on the ship’s bridge. "They call it the ice blink. It's nature's version of a neon sign that lets you know when you are approaching the frozen north… It appears - dead ahead - a distinct, bright white line of cloud that hangs across the water. It looks as if it is glowing because of the reflections bounced up from the ice below."

He was writing from the Fram Straight, a stretch of water that extends from the Arctic Ocean to the Greenland Sea and the Norwegian Sea, which is named after the immensely strong wooden ship that navigated the great polar explorer Nansen on his journey towards the North Pole in 1893. As we buffeted our way through this channel of water and carved our way into the ice world beyond, it was like passing through the wardrobe into the wintery ice world of Narnia. 

So having returned from the trip, back to the daily grind in London, when people kept asking me what the Arctic was like I found myself repeatedly saying how difficult it would be to put into words what a magical and wild place I’d had the privilege to see. Whilst I did my best to recount the experience of witnessing polar bears come and hunt around our ship, together with Ivory gulls, Gyr falcons, pilot whales, white-beaked dolphins, Arctic skuas, and more bears, I could never really articulate how I was touched by being at the frozen top of our world. 

But now I can simply refer to the epic new four-years-in-the-making, seven part series, Frozen Planet. In the trailer, which itself is something special, Sir David’s distinctive voice tells us, "These are places that feed our imagination, places that seem to be borrowed from fairy tales."

These are also places at risk of needless destruction.

As the fossil-fuelled rise in global temperatures causes the Arctic’s summer sea ice to shrink to the lowest levels for 8000 years, as oil companies start transporting their rigs and drill ships between the icebergs, as shipping companies eye up the possibility to take their cargos through the North West Passage with the risk of oil spills that brings, and industrial fishermen move ever northwards as the ice melts – Frozen Planet should underline what’s at stake. The Arctic, once a shared idea and a global commons, is being carved up and recklessly traded away.

Prompted by our new campaign to protect the Arctic, The Independent’s Mike McCarthy recently recalled his own visit to the High North. He wrote, "On an ever-more crowded and degraded planet, wilderness answers a longing in many people for an unspoilt world, for a world as it was from the beginning, and I know that at the North Pole I caught the sense of it, that this was the alpha and omega of untouched purity. That it should be transformed into a factory, with drilling rigs and oil spills, seems to me an insufferable conception, and that was the pang I felt when Greenpeace said that they wanted to save it – I remembered, in fact it all came flooding back to me, what there was to save."


An iceberg made of densely formed ice, often called 'old' ice, showing light transmitted through it. © Greenpeace / Nick Cobbing

Like almost every other environmental campaigner of my generation, the insights offered by Attenborough’s documentaries as I grew up were a major influence in making me want to work to protect our fragile biosphere – offering extraordinary evidence of how Planet Earth is so interconnected, fragile and also plain beautiful.

I hope that after watching Frozen Planet, you’ll sense that pang for what there is to save too and sign up to our campaign to protect the frozen poles of our planet Earth:

The UK is lobbying to water down new European proposals which would ensure that oil companies, like Cairn Energy, have to meet tough new standards when they operate in fragile areas like the Arctic. Please ask David Cameron to use his influence to help protect the frozen North.

We need to do SOMETHING. I realise signing a form is only a tiny step, but with such a big challenge ahead of us, a first step could (quite literally) change the world. Well, save it anyway.

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