The melting ice of the Arctic (1/2) | DW Documentary
We are traversing through the Arctic — a landscape few have ever seen before. A journey through this rugged, wild world requires everything we have, shows us no mercy — and yet is so full of magic. We want to understand how this world is changing and what that will mean for all of us.
We will meet some people who couldn’t be any happier and others who see their future in danger. The Arctic has always represented more than just a longing for unspoiled beauty. For thousands of years, it has been considered untamable — but these days a race has begun about who will conquer it for the future. We have flown around the globe once, across the far north, to discover what the future holds for all of us. Into a world that is changing...
We are approaching the Aleutian Islands, a chain of volcanic islands frequently battered by storms and extending from the Alaskan mainland far into the North Pacific. The rugged islands are blanketed in soft green. Our journey through the Arctic begins here, far south of the Arctic Circle. All over the island there are relics from World War II, shipwrecks and bunkers. Here, we have come across a story that suggests a new, dangerous conflict is on the horizon, high up north in the Arctic.
But now, at the end of July, with high temperatures of around 11 degrees, the Aleutian Islands reveal their gentle, good-natured side. Dutch Harbor on the main island of Unalaska is a top U.S. fishing port — a bBillion-dollar business. Every year, some 350,000 tons of fish and seafood, pollock, cod, halibut as well as huge king crabs are offloaded here and shipped all over the world.
The leftovers are picked over by the eagles that live here, like pigeons do in Berlin or Venice. In 1741, the 160 or so islands were discovered by Vitus Behring, a Danish officer commissioned by the Russian Czar to find out if there was a land bridge between the Americas and Russia. A small Russian Orthodox church is a reminder of the days before 1867 when Russia sold the islands, along with Alaska, to the U.S. for $7.2 mMillion. A good deal for America. A deal that Russia regrets - to this day.
The fishing boat sets off from Dutch Harbor for the fishing grounds in the far north, in the Bering Sea. More than a thousand kilometers away, it is one of the most inhospitable places in the world. It is about 4 o'clock in the morning when the Blue North docks in Dutch Harbor. One ship that can venture deep into the north.
For three months they had been navigating the Bering Sea, close to the Russian border. The Blue North is the most modern ship in the American fishing fleet, with room for more than 600 tons of fish. We’ve arranged to meet Captain David Andersen. He’s been working the seas as a fisherman since he was 19, first as an ordinary deckhand, now as a captain.
For months, we have been in contact with him via satellite. He sent us videos that demonstrate what it means to fish in the Bering Sea. Just watching them makes us queasy.
Captain Andersen wants to tell us about a dangerous encounter, possibly a new frontline, which in his view has received far too little attention. My initial thought was like, well I gotta listen to these guys or who knows what they’re gonna do. You know, they are capable of everything and they’re unpredictable. I’ve got to protect the crew. Captain Andersen gives us a tour of the ship, his pride and joy. The highlight is the so-called moon pool, a large shaft in the bottom of the ship for hauling in the lines during storms so that the crew isn’t exposed to the weather.
The Blue North is a so-called long liner — these lines are a total of 70 kilometers long. We have 55 magazines on board. One magazine has 1,200 hooks on it, multiplied by 55, which is what we have on board, and you’re looking at 65,000 hooks, hanging, on board, that we have, that we fish in a twenty-four-hour period. The Blue North is a floating state-of-the-art machine — a battleship, if you will — nearly everything is automated.
The fish, mostly cod, are gutted and cleaned, sorted by size and weight, packed and finally deep-frozen all on board. It's a huge business. Each shipment brings in more than 3 Million dollars. To be sold all over the world.
However, every year it becomes increasingly difficult to find the fish. The fish are definitely migrating. There is no doubt about that and there is only one way for them to go and that is north. North is, you know, obviously colder waters so they are moving up north further and we are fishermen, we have got to find the fish and we go where the fish is at, so we’re going to follow them. Ten years ago, we only had to go 18 hours out. You know, and now, two and a half days. We’re going two and a half days out to find the fish.
That is how much its changing. Its changing quite a bit. But the further the fish migrate north towards the Arctic, the closer the coasts of Russia and America become. On the bridge, Captain Andersen tells us the story that made us want to meet him. He recorded the whole incident with his phone. As the plane was coming you can see in the video, this is where I was standing to take a shot of the plane.
An airplane was approaching from the distance. When I first saw the plane, I just thought it was the Coast Guard. No big deal. I didn’t think twice about it. I’ve seen it before. When I found out it was military, that was a different story. I said, ok now we are in something serious here. Especially when I found out it wasn’t our military.
The aircrew ordered them to turn back, demanding that they set a new course, at maximum speed. What made this situation so volatile was that it was Russians ordering an American fishing boat to leave American waters. Also on the bridge was Mike Fitzgerald, the second in command of the Blue North. Well, you mean it was just short of action. I mean, they are telling us to get out the way. They are charging in. I mean if you had tanks and plowing across the US border anywhere telling civilians to get out of the way. It’s the same thing. We’re fishing.
We’re fishing in our waters we had that happen to us. It remains unclear why the Russian military acted so aggressively. In the harbor we meet the crew of the Sunward.
A small wooden fishing vessel with a crew of four. There's an atmosphere of concentrated, tense activity. The crew is preparing to set off to their fishing grounds 800 kilometers north in the Bering Sea.
After some beer and whiskey the night before, Captain Garet Gunderson has invited us to come for a trip around the island while they refuel and stock up on food. That's good for morale on board, he says, then the crew has something to talk about over the next few days — it’s going to be a strenuous trip. We’re gonna surf the whole way there. It’ll be 10 foot seas but it will be on the stern so we’ll surf our whole way there. And by the time we get there we’ll set gear, the weather will lay down for about three days and then its gonna blow 40 so we will try to go around the backside of the island to get some protection. And just anchor up there for a day. On deck, the crew secures the fishing equipment.
Waves over 10 meters high are not uncommon in the Bering Sea. But the fishermen are used to storms and waves. There are other things the crew is more concerned about. They turned up 25 years ago.
You only have to encounter them once or twice and they know what you are doing. They wait for you to haul your gear and then they steal your fish. Or prey on your fish. Oh yeah. They hunt fisherman up there. They wait for you. If killer whales show up, its game over. So over the years, we are fishing the edge and the killer whale shows up and you have to run from them.
Eventually just started going further north and further north to where they aren’t any. The water is too cold up there or for whatever reason. They don’t go that far north. But there will come a time when even the Sunward can't make the trip. The northern journey has its limits. The farther north we have to go, it’ll start to pace us out the fishery.
We can only go so far. About St. Matthew is about as far as north as we can go and still have enough fuel and water and whatnot to make it back to Dutch Harbor. Otherwise we’re just not big enough. We ask the captain if they have ever been driven off their fishing ground, or if they have heard about what happened to the Blue North and other fishing boats: We heard about that last year, but I never saw it, we never saw it.
We were headed out west and we were told that there was Russian warships, and they weren’t letting guys fish. We wanted to know what he as a captain would do if the Russians drove him off his fishing grounds? By the Russians?! I’d be pissed. But what am I going to do? Is it like the military or? Yeah I’d run. I don’t have any guns. I could throw fish at them. You know. Back on the Blue North. After their encounter with the Russian military, the two captains are now expecting the American government to act. They knew that the Arctic is changing.
The fish are moving north, the fishing vessels are moving north. I think the military should move north, too. I think it would be a prudent decision on the US military’s side. And for everybody, honestly. I think it would be very prudent, especially for the future of fishing and, who knows what the future holds, for the artic.
Because the fish keep migrating further and further north towards the Arctic, the fishermen hope for military support. We're beginning to get the feeling that our journey through the Arctic will hold many surprises for us, too. We leave the Aleutian Islands.
We are heading east to Pond Inlet in the Canadian Arctic, at the entrance to the Northwest Passage. As for Canada, they are already preparing for new conflicts. Baffin Island is the fifth largest island in the world, one and a half times the size of Germany and virtually uninhabited. The icebreaker "Harry de Wolfe" of the Royal Canadian Navy is on patrol. Often for days on end, they travel through uninhabited terrain, through a world that is increasingly turning from white to blue. Captain Gleason and his crew are surveying the seafloor, water depth, and geological structures.
To operate here in the remoteness of the Arctic North, you need to have a precise grasp of what it looks like above and below the water. According to this our depth should be 50 meters but the reality was that it was 80 meters, not 50 meters. So it’s not good enough to navigate safely on, to keep a ship safe, particular of this size. Maybe a sailboat but not a ship this size. On deck, the crew prepares for something Canada has never carried out up here before.
This is only a test, but soon it will be standard procedure for patrols through the Northwest Passage. So they say they are about 5 minutes away for slowing down and then we can deploy. As the ship slows down, Gleason's crew lowers a thick cable into the water.
Attached to the cable is a kind of sled, a state-of-the-art sonar device that they will pull through these remote Arctic waters. ...To look under the water, to listen underwater, and to start building more of an understanding of the artic waters and how submarines and other vessels can operate up in the north to either support sovereignty or challenge it. Canada wants to demonstrate that it is not only capable of staking its claim in the Arctic, but also of enforcing it.
Also on board are a squad of paratroopers from southern Canada. They are making final preparations before going ashore. The soldiers are to get a feel for how large and remote this land is. In case of an emergency, they will have to defend it.
Ok so we’re going to send you all ashore all at once, initially, then you're going to stage yourself ashore. Once you're ashore and you've established your positions. I need you guys to dress warmly.
You’re going to up there for at least 4 or 5 hours. Make sure you have water and food, things like that with you to keep you going. You are going to burn a lot of calories in the cold, as you know.
And just take care of everyone else as well. Ok? Any questions? Have fun. Only very few Canadians know their own country here in the north — it is still too far away and too difficult to reach. One can sense that it is also a great adventure for the soldiers to be out here at the northern edge of the world, to experience for themselves the power of this wild and pristine nature.
They are training to work together with the Arctic Rangers, a local Inuit unit that patrols the entire north of Canada — from the west to the east coast. They will be learning from and with each other. The rangers show the soldiers how to survive in this harsh world, where they are often left to their own devices. Shooting and gutting seals is one of the most important survival strategies - because seal meat contains a lot of vitamin C, they say — important in an area where there are neither trees nor fruits or vegetables — especially nutritious is the liver... The consistency in your mouth is like gel. But in addition to the vitamins it contains, raw seal meat has another advantage that is particularly important up here in winter.
If you are cold in the winter time, get a little bit of that, a little bit of meat, and in 15 minutes, you are warm. Solder: Yeah? Yeah, it is a chemical reaction in your body, that reacts to the seal blood. Then everything starts going. You don’t have to eat very much. The Arctic Rangers are the eyes and ears of the north, local fishermen and hunters who roam the Arctic virtually year-round to provide for their families.
And they explain to the soldiers how one survives here.... Yeah, nice dude. Yeah! The soldiers, in turn, show the Arctic Rangers how to use radio to communicate over long distances, and equip them with the tools they need for the job. So they are programmed to talk to anyone around so they can talk with the planes, with the military plane.
They can talk also with the ship. So when you do a search and rescue mission, you can talk with the plane or the helicopter with this radio. And even if things don't always work out right away, they're becoming more and more important for the Canadian troops. Our job is to see what’s happening in the north, in our respective territory, and if we see anything out of the ordinary, like ships, submarines, or other activities, we’re to report it back to our headquarters. The last one was 300 kilometers out towards Pond Inlet, which is about towards the north area, and we reported seeing something and took a picture. A submarine? It was one of the vessels, yes.
As to where the ships and the submarine came from — there is still no answer. But since discovering Soviet underwater maps of the Northwest Passage from the Cold War period that are much more accurate than Canadian maps, Canada has been under the assumption that undiscovered visitors have been navigating Canadian waters for a long time now. For the soldiers, one thing is very clear. Military-wise we need to wave the flag and I think we need more boots on the ground just to show, just to show you’re average Canadian or people overseas that, yeah we are here.
We are patrolling the area. There has been too much debate about who owns what or whatever. I think in order for us to. We can’t just leave the backyard open.
We have got to put a fence around it. So we would be that fence line. We would show people we are here. The North is changing at a breathtaking pace. And Canada's government is trying to keep up. The Harry De Wolfe is its first response. Additional robust patrol boats of this type are under construction, and Canada plans to deploy them in the Arctic in the next few years.
We’re just starting to operate up in the north as a matter of routine business, because the artic ice is allowing us to do that now. The ships don’t normally operate that far north at any time but as Canada’s artic continues to open, it allows ships to operate further north. It puts Canada in a position that it has to put ships further north and the Royal Canadian Navy is part of that plan. Canada wants to preserve its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and doesn't want to become a pawn of the Arctic superpowers, the US and Russia. But even if the ice is slowly disappearing, Captain Gleason has a message for all those who intend to roam around up here: Don’t underestimate the artic. It’s not something that you can control.
It will change. You need to go into the arctic with a plan but understand that your plan may fail at first contact. And then you need to adapt to the situation.
We continue on in a small single-engine propeller plane, accompanied by Dierk Reuter. He is an experienced pilot who has made landings in Antarctica. Before we take off, we have to practice putting on our survival suits — Dierk gives us four minutes. It fits. Ok! Wow, 2 minutes and 30 seconds. This is pretty damn awesome.
Previously, Dierk was a successful IT entrepreneur and banker — today he travels the world and is familiar with the flying conditions in places where there is no quick assistance if something goes wrong. He is considered one of the best. Ahead of us lies an adventurous journey across the Labrador Sea, Greenland, and the North Atlantic, as we travel many hours over uninhabited territory on to the loneliest corners of the earth, only accessible by air or ship. The west coast of Greenland emerges in front of us. Dierk descends. Visibility is good.
We can't quite comprehend at first what we're looking at, where we are headed. This is a world that hardly anyone has seen before. A world that immediately mesmerizes us. We fly over jagged ice landscapes that continuously change colors.
We fly low over glaciers and through fjords. And it leaves us breathless again and again. It is a world of such natural wonders that we are humbled in its presence. But this is a merciless world that permits no mistakes. Many have died up here or have crashed while trying to cross the mighty ice sheets.
Here, it is rarely as peaceful and gentle as it was for us. In the early days of aviation when traffic to Europe, between North America and Europe was largely propellor driven aircraft they weren’t climbing a lot higher than the top of the ice cap, like 14,000 feet, and there were situations where people were just flying in the fog, you known, and everything looked fine and there were moments people just heard the cluck cluck cluck of the props hitting the ice and then the aircraft just landed. Hopefully those all turn our really quite well. We travel for hours over a mountain range with valleys filled to the summit with ice. The gigantic glaciers have formed over the last 2-3 million years. 80 percent of Greenland is still covered by ice.
Life is only possible on the coast. We approach Kulusuk, in the southeast of the island. Small houses appear below us, their bright colors announcing that we are no longer alone. Kulusuk is one of the few settlements on the east coast of Greenland.
About 200 people live here, subsisting on hunting and fishing. In the last century, this isolated place, where time seems to stand still, was swept into the torrent of history as if overnight and now finds itself at the mercy of the global politics of climate change. After landing, we are amazed when airport security drives a large bulldozer in front of the plane. The boss of the airport himself is in charge of the operation. This is our windbreaker, otherwise everything flies away when the wind comes.
Last month we had 100 knots, which is about 158 kilometers per hour. Two concrete blocks are moved under the wings to tie the plane down. Many years ago, a Frenchman was here with a much larger aircraft. He didn't think it was necessary. The damage can still be seen at the end of the runway.
In the tower, we ask what else we should watch out for. The air traffic controller has a rifle next to his computers. We ask Hans what this is all about: Some days we need to go. We need to walk, so we have to be careful for the polar bears. Johannes: Really? Have you ever seen one? Hans: Yeah.
But we won't meet any polar bears, not until much later, that is. We have an appointment with Rasmus Poulsen. He is the full-time captain of the local police boat. He has something to show us to illustrate that the Arctic has long ceased to be the white, cold wonderland that we imagine far off at the northern end of the world, even in the most remote of places.
A two-hour boat ride awaits us, full speed ahead. Deeper and deeper into a world that seems so pure and pristine and yet it is not. We land at a pier surrounded by crystal clear water with stone and snow towering above us. We still can't see what's hidden further ahead.
First, we have to get ashore, but at an older age this can be quite a challenge. Once that is done and we have carried our equipment up the shoreline, we come across a bizarre landscape of rust and steel. A still life that tells a story that few know. We are on Bluie East Two, an American military base from World War II, or rather what the US troops left behind after they left. The airfield was brought here in the 40s as part of WWII. Its part at the Atlantic Bridge so in case some of the planes going from the south shore had any troubles they could land here.
At that time, far out behind these mountains in the Atlantic, a merciless submarine war was raging, German submarines were sinking many Allied convoys and naval units. Greenland and its east coast was vital for the battles in the Atlantic and the bombing of Germany. Greenland is known as the “weather kitchen” where weather is cooked up for Europe. Whoever controls Greenland, knows what is coming and thus has a decisive tactical advantage.
Thus, began a cat-and-mouse game between the Americans and the Germans. As both tried secretly to build weather stations on the rugged, virtually uninhabited coast. But the German attempts failed, not least because local Inuit detected them in the wilderness. But the war forever changed the lives of the Inuit, who previously had little or no contact with the outside world. But at the time, basically we had the stone age here. People were living off of what they could find in nature using driftwood, stones, and animals and the things they could find in nature.
And then the US came in and they brought Coca Cola, canned food, all these different things. So it basically escalated during WWII. People got in touch with all these nice new things so after the war they couldn’t take all these things away from them again. At first glance, Bluie East Two looks like a monstrous environmental crime in a pure and completely untouched wilderness. But for those who live in this barren place, where they are dependent on driftwood washing up from Siberia, it has been a real blessing. People have been out here taking things. We have houses inside and around the settlements coming from this area so they have been out here taking the houses apart, bringing them into the town. We have all the oil drums laying around,
which used to be full of fuel at some point. They have left some with fuel in, so people have been out here taking the fuel. We have no engines in the cars. What about the cars. What happened to them? They have probably been used for generators in town, they have been used for boat engines and so on. So people have been out here taking the things, been looking and saying I can use this for something.
And that could be an engine, that could be a light, that could be a steering wheel, or whatever they now have. There have been debates about whether to remove Bluie East Two, to dispose of the traces of the War here. Rasmus Poulsen and many others here are against it. Bluie East Two is a fascinating open-air museum and a cautionary reminder.
I think it’s a very nice place to come. Because it tells history about WWII, Greenland, and we can see how much influence people can have on something and then when they leave they will last. It takes time for nature, especially artic nature, to take things back. With the end of World War II, U.S. troops left the fjord along one of the loneliest coasts in the world.
But the conflicts are returning to the north, surfacing in places that are still out of reach for most people. We have to get back before it gets dark, but plan to travel further north the next morning. It will be a night filled with magic. The next morning a tractor arrives with a fuel tank.
We want to fly on to Ittoqqortormiit possibly the most remote settlement in the world. It will be a long, cold flight. Dierk adds something to the gasoline. Dierk:Its an additive that prevents the fuel from, you know, shedding out the ice crystals, which would stop the engine.
Johannes: Yeah, it wouldn’t be good if it stopped the engine. Dierk:Particularly in this climate. Johannes:And because we have only one engine. Dierk:Yeah! It’s that, too. With the aircraft refueled and cleared...
We head into the tower one more time to say goodbye. And for one last briefing about the flight route. We have nearly 1000 kilometers ahead of us on a route that very few have flown before. Hans:It is all uncontrolled all the way up to Constable Point — if you are flying below one nine five Johannes: So what do we have to take care of, flying up north? Hans: Well we have the biggest mountain between Constable Point and Kulusuk, it is around here. It is called the Gunnbjørn-Fjeld. It is around 4 kilometers high.
Johannes:4000 Meters? Here, right? Hans:Yeah, around here. I’m not We quickly clean the windows one last time — in case of poor visibility, we must be careful not to fly too low. In this rough terrain, it could be a while before we are rescued. We cram ourselves into the small plane as best we can, with equipment and survival suits stuffed into the cabin.
Up and off into an unknown world. After takeoff, we follow the coastline. And once again we are enthralled by the power of such majestic nature. After half an hour or so, we once again cross a rugged ice landscape, up across the ice sheet where Greenland’s highest mountains tower.
The peaks of a mountain range rise up from under sheets of ice several kilometers deep. Even Dierk is amazed. For example, watch the glaciers close up. They have these sort of, I don’t know what you call them, birthing marking marks, very deep structures where the glacier is hitting the water and then further up is the ice field. Its basically 100% smooth, it looks like a powder snow paradise for skiers and then in between we have, you have this section right now, basically one Matterhorn after the other.
I don’t know enough about geology but it is stunningly beautiful with these pyramid shapes and the horizonal striping from the snow, and the contrast from the black rock, or dark grew rock and the white snow is just gorgeous. But what may seem from the safety of the sky to be heavenly is in fact brutal and unforgiving on the ground. In 1930, during his last Greenland expedition, German meteorologist Alfred Wegener perished somewhere out here on the ice. In the German research facility that bears his name, the Alfred Wegener Institute, they continue Wegener's adventurous research in the Arctic. In 2019, as part of a spectacular expedition, scientists aboard the research icebreaker Polarstern buckled down for a whole year adrift in the pack ice at the North Pole. They collected data on climate, ice, and water.
Before our trip, we met with the leader of the expedition in Bremerhaven, hoping to get an idea of what was in store for us: Previously, there had always been more than 8 million square kilometers of ice out on the Arctic. But these days, during our expedition, we had less than 4 million square kilometers. The thickness of the ice also decreased by half. In a few decades, there will be no ice in the Arctic in summer. However, the disappearance of the Arctic pack ice is having dramatic consequences far beyond the Arctic.
If the Arctic Sea ice disappears, the dark ocean will absorb much more energy from the sun, since most of the energy from the ice is radiated right back again. In other words, a white surface will be replaced by a dark one. This will cause the Arctic to warm even more, and this may also act to destabilize Greenland. We are now seeing it rain in Greenland, which is an extremely rare weather phenomena, but it is now happening more frequently in Greenland. Rain in Greenland! Rain on the ice sheets of Greenland.
Scientists expect that it may soon rain here more than it snows, which would have dramatic consequences for the entire planet. The ice sheet in Greenland is immensely important for the climate. It contains gigantic quantities of fresh water, which, unlike the Arctic sea ice, is on the land and not on the ocean. And that is very important. If this ice melts, the sea level will rise. And there is so much ice in Greenland that it is enough to raise the sea level globally by 5 to 7 meters.
Just imagine that. As we fly over it for hours, one can hardly imagine that such a mighty layer of ice, up to three kilometers thick at some spots, will ever melt completely. Then suddenly it turns blue. Ahead of us lies Scoresby Sound, the largest fjord system in the world. On the other side of the inlet is Ittoqqortormiit, a small Inuit community. Their closest neighbors live on Iceland
some six to seven thousand kilometers across the Arctic Ocean. Here they are still sheltered from major political conflicts, but they too can sense that underneath it all something is changing. A short gravel runway lies at the end of this arm of the fjord, 70 kilometers away from the small settlement. The airport was built by an American oil company in the 1980s but was abandoned after five years. Today it is the only connection to the outside world. We go down to the beach with the luggage cart.
The only way to Ittoqqortormiit is by boat - there are no roads here. Age and his son Brian are waiting for us at the water - the greet us warmly — visitors don't come by that often. The trip to the settlement takes an hour and a half on this cool late autumn day - we must hurry. This time of year, it gets dark early. Age and his wife Mette invite us to dinner with their children.
There will be something very special for us — homemade musk ox burgers, from the first musk ox that Brian, the youngest, recently shot. First thing the next morning, we put on an extra layer of clothing. With our thick jackets, we squeeze into insulated suits that will protect us from the wind, water, and cold. This time of the year, it can drop to minus 15 or minus 20 degrees. As we set off it is about minus 10. We ride in an open boat with Olena and Aqqalu. Olena's parents say goodbye.
Dierk and Brian, one of our two cameramen, go with Age. Long distances far into the fjord or the ocean are always done with two boats for safety. We set out on an experiment. We want to go to a place that no Inuit has ever reached in October.
It is too deep in the fjord, too close to the ice sheet, 250 kilometers from Ittoqqorttormiit as the crow flies. We will spend several days traveling through the fjord, and no doubt some of that time we will regret ever coming on this journey at all. On this cold but peaceful late October day we could not begin to imagine what was in store for us.