Eternal Ice? On Board The Icebreaker ‘Polarstern’
Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. In September 2019, the biggest Arctic expedition of all time was launched to help fight climate change through research. Also on board the icebreaker “Polarstern” are employees from UFA Show & Factual and G+J. Due to the coronavirus crisis, replacement of the current team has been delayed.
It is the biggest Arctic expedition of all time, and also one of the biggest research projects on climate change ever. The German research ship “Polarstern” has been tethered to a large ice floe in the Arctic since October 2019 to follow the natural drift of the ice at the North Pole. On board is a changing team of hundreds of scientists from more than 20 nations who are spending a year drifting with the ice floe through the Arctic Ocean, carrying out numerous research projects. They are joined by employees from UFA Show & Factual and Gruner + Jahr, who are providing media coverage for the mammoth project for the Bertelsmann Content Alliance, documenting the “Mosaic” (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) expedition during their stints of two months each aboard. One of them is the experienced documentary filmmaker Philipp Grieß, Producer at UFA Show & Factual, who witnessed the start of the expedition on board the “Polarstern” in the Arctic night.
“The Arctic is an extreme place that leaves its mark on you and never lets you go again,” says Grieß about his experiences on board the “Polarstern.” “But it is also a largely unknown place.” When the research ship, supported by a Russian icebreaker, tethered itself to a suitable ice floe after a ten-day voyage in October 2019, it felt “like landing on another planet,” says Grieß. “It was absolutely unreal – incredibly quiet and dry.” The Arctic is like another planet from a scientific point of view as well; many of the processes that play a decisive role in determining the global climate here have not yet been researched. “You can see everywhere how much we simply don’t know yet: For example, the structure of Arctic snow was now examined for the first time, and lo and behold, it differs from, say, the snow of the Alps,” reports Grieß. “Scientists are still unable to say unequivocally whether it actually has a cooling or warming effect when it snows down onto the ice.”
Before Philipp Grieß and Jakob Stark from UFA Show & Factual, as well as “Geo” reporter Marlene Göring and photographer Esther Horvath, were able to take their first steps in this strange world last year, they underwent several months of hard work and intensive preparation. “We’ve been preparing for the expedition since last July,” says Grieß, “but that is nothing compared to the ten years’ of preparation that many of the scientists put into planning and preparing the expedition and its investigations.” He himself has some experience with elaborate shoots around the world, especially from his work for the ZDF documentary series “Terra X.” To determine which stories they wanted to tell in their documentary, which scientists they would accompany on their daily excursions on the ice, Grieß and his colleagues also had to familiarize themselves with the expedition’s research subject matter. “We faced a huge mountain of information from current climate research and nature observation,” he recalls. What happens in the atmosphere? What exactly is sea ice? What biochemical interaction takes place between the ocean, atmosphere, and ice? What does the local ecology look like? What significance does the Arctic Ocean, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet, actually have for the global climate? He says these are just some of the questions from a total of five major research fields that are being studied on the “Polarstern.”
Grieß sees the task of his documentary, which will air on ARD in the fall, as telling stories from these immensely important questions for climate research that don’t just convey knowledge in the way a professor would, but also help people understand the biggest Arctic expedition in a vivid and compelling way. Accompanying the “Mosaic” expedition, according to the producer, corresponds almost perfectly to the basic ethos of a documentary filmmaker: “Go there, observe, capture it in pictures, and then show it to other people who don’t have the opportunity to go there.” Add to that the rapid changes in the Arctic caused by climate change, he says. “This is the last time a camera team will be able to spend such a long period of time on the Arctic ice, because the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer in the foreseeable future,” says Grieß. For example, the ice was already thinner than expected when the “Polarstern” arrived. “When we got out, the ice was only 30 centimeters thick on average, with only very deep, very cold water underneath. We can still capture images now that won’t be possible there in 20 years.” And so he sees one of the tasks of his documentary as making people aware of this location’s significance for the climate. “What happens in nature on our doorstep also happens because the Arctic exists and because it is the way it is,” says Grieß. “But we can only guess what’s happening there. We don’t really know.”
UFA was selected to join the “Mosaic” expedition not because of some other successful expedition documentary it had done, but because of the drama series “Charité” about the history of the Berlin hospital of the same name. “Through his work on ‘Charité,’ Nico Hofmann, head of UFA, developed a good relationship with the Helmholtz Association, which is one of the largest sponsors of research in Germany,” explains Grieß. Hofmann’s idea, he says, was to portray the diverse research work being done there and to tell exciting stories about it. In early 2019, Grieß himself was given the opportunity to take part in a delegation trip to the Arctic via the Helmholtz Association, during which he met, among others, the “Mosaic” expedition leader Markus Rex and the Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Antje Boetius, which is directing the expedition. “I was quite astonished when I realized that the biggest Arctic expedition of all time was going to start in a year’s time, and that nobody had really committed themselves to capturing it in pictures yet,” he recalls. One reason for this was certainly the high degree of logistical effort involved, combined with many other uncertainties, but Ute Biernat, Managing Director of UFA Show & Factual, quickly made the decision: “We’re going to do this.”
Philipp Grieß was often confronted with the difficult logistics and the special demands on the technology in the period that followed. Roughly a ton of equipment, “more than ever before for any of my documentaries,” was brought aboard the “Polarstern” in advance. An entire pallet of hard drives for the expected 600 hours of filming alone. “Since you can’t just stop by an electronics market, you have to make sure that you really have everything you might need with you,” says Grieß. Added to this was the uncertainty as to whether all the technical equipment would even work. “The manufacturers of cameras and similar equipment guarantee functionality down to minus 20 degrees,” says the documentary filmmaker. Beyond that, he says, there are no more guarantees. “We noticed the effect of this on the first really cold day,” says Grieß. “It froze us in our tracks, so to speak.” Until then, the temperatures had been a tolerable minus 17 degrees, and a feeling of “it’s really not that bad” had set in, he says. Then the weather changed, it became much colder and windier, and the insufficiently insulated technology quickly gave up the ghost. “That day we learned how incredibly important it is to wrap and insulate our equipment.” He and the team also quickly became experts in gloves. “We have the same problem as the researchers: our hands are in the open a lot in our work, and in these temperatures that can quickly lead to frostbite,” says Grieß. In February, for example, the team had to take a two-day break from shooting because the cameraman’s thumb was almost frozen.
Another ongoing issue for the expedition are the very present polar bears. “You don’t want to encounter them, as you will definitely have the shorter end of the stick,” says the documentary filmmaker. And the danger of a surprise encounter with polar bears is quite real, because the Arctic is not really as flat as people generally think. Everywhere in the rugged ice landscape there are ice ridges just a meter or two high, which you cannot see behind. “On top of that, the polar night lasts throughout the day and you can only see as far as your flashlight beam – everything else is pitch black,” says Grieß. “To ensure that all the researchers on the ice are not constantly worrying about polar bears, they always have an armed polar bear guard at their side, who has to be very quick in an emergency.” Approaching polar bears are watched from the ship with infrared cameras, and are then be scared off with noise and tripwires that trigger flares, says Grieß. “Nevertheless, a clever bear once managed to get within 50 meters undetected.”
In their work, the employees from UFA Show & Factual and G+J of course adapt to the research community’s working day, which begins at 7 a.m. with a meeting of the ship’s management on the ship’s bridge, and ends in the evening with the science meeting where all the researchers gather again. “We plan for the next day, consider who our protagonist will be, who we will tag along with,” explains Grieß. The team then accompanies the researchers in question for several days at a time in order to understand their rhythm and build a better relationship with them. “We simply move with the flow of the people we are accompanying at the moment.” Thanks to the long time spent together, the film crew has become an integral part of the “Polarstern” expedition, says Grieß. He and his colleagues repeatedly put down the camera to help out, he tells us, for example by taking over a polar bear watch, or keeping lookout with binoculars on the bridge for anything that seems unusual. “This has created a completely different closeness and intensity to the crew and researchers, and the viewers will sense this in our documentary as well” promises Grieß.
Despite all the work from morning to night, the “Polarstern” also has a lot to offer the crew in terms of recreation. The highlights, not just for Philipp Grieß, include a sports room, a pool in which regular water polo tournaments are held, and a sauna. “Coming out of the sauna and onto the helideck at minus 20 degrees Celsius is simply great,” says Grieß. There is even a bar on board, which is opened for occasions like birthdays – but only if there are volunteers willing to tend the bar.
After the first few months on board the “Polarstern,” the UFA team – a total of nine employees from UFA Show & Factual are scheduled to take turns on board this year – has already collected a mountain of material and topics with hundreds of hours of footage. Philipp Grieß and the UFA Show & Factual team are now editing the documentary, which will also focus on an unusual main protagonist: the “Polarstern” itself. According to Grieß, little stories will then “dock onto” the ship, delving into various topics.
Meanwhile, for two UFA employees, Dieter Stürmer and Manuel Ernst, who have been on the “Polarstern” since mid-February, the expedition adventure is taking much longer than planned. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Norway has closed its borders to foreign travelers for the time being, so that the replacement crew cannot be brought to “Polarstern” by plane from Spitsbergen as planned. The next change of crew probably won’t be able to take place until June. The last change of the “Polarstern” crew in February had also been delayed by two weeks, because the supply vessel with the new crew, which had set off from the Norwegian port of Tromsø, could only make very slow progress through the thick ice.
“These two months on board the ‘Polarstern’ have had a lasting influence on me,” concludes Philipp Grieß about his time in the Arctic. “On the one hand, it was frightening for me to see how fundamental human influence is on the entire world.” For example, even in the Arctic, microplastics are found in supposedly untouched nature, transported there via the atmosphere. On the other hand, he returned from the Arctic with a positive feeling. “On board the ‘Polarstern’ we are witnessing a great joint effort by many nations and the global scientific community,” says Grieß. He sees this as a truly encouraging example of what is possible when the will is there. “The ‘Mosaic’ expedition is a testament to man’s dream of understanding things and the willingness to go to great lengths to achieve it. These people on the ‘Polarstern’ deserve to be portrayed – at work, with all their doubts and their hopes.”