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The Making of Three Documentaries in Alaska

" Let's do polar bears," Thomas, my long-standing colleague, a reporter with German television, called to me as we waved a hurried goodbye at the Detroit Airport. We had just finished a staid but stressful shoot at the auto show. We were both thinking about the next project, eager to do something big and adventurous. And so launched a shoot on global warming that would take us to the edge of the world, yield three documentaries, two helicopter expeditions and an encounter with one Jewish eskimo with some unorthodox practices.

To "do polar bears" there is only really one source - Dr. Steve  Amstrup,  Polar Bear Project Leader for the United States Geologicial Center.  My first task was to convince Amstrup to let us film out in the field. Ever since Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth",  Amstrup has been flooded with requests.  There are only a few weeks in spring when the air temperature has 'warmed up' to -10' to -20' farenheit and skies are calm and clear - essential conditions for safely flying in helicopters.  After proving to Amstrup that we were serious and able to provide our own helicopter to follow his researchers, our shoot was squeezed in at the end of April right before Anderson Cooper's team from CNN was scheduled to arrive.

With the filming of the polar bears our lead story, I planned our trip to Deadhorse, the oil company outpost where the researchers were stationed, around the worst case scenario that we might have to wait a day or two because of bad flying conditions. Amstrup usually has the media come up in April because the weather is generally ideal.  But in yet another example of climate change and the unexpected weather that results, we were greeted by thick fog and high winds that did not lift for four, interminable days. On the fourth day, just when Thomas and I were faced with the prospect of losing our helicopter, there was a break in the clouds and our pilot decided that we could actually get up in the air.  Our shoot was narrowly saved. But we were chastened by the fact that this was the worst spell of weather that any crew had encountered in Amstrup's nine years with the program.

Up to this point we had only communicated with the field researcher, Geoff York by phone. His team was stationed at an oil company outpost that had waved guns at the last tv crew as they denied them permission to land on their property.  For the past few days, Geoff had been tracking some nearby bears by radio collar so our first meeting was mid-air on the way to a small male. When Thomas and our cameraman finally did take off, we had a relatively easy time finding the animals through radio signals. However, in terms of the bigger picture, the population is in decline. Polar bears are adapted to survive in the arctic environment and need the arctic ice as a platform for hunting seals. With the warming of the waters, the ice is breaking up and the ice sheets are melting after a shortened season. It follows that hunting has become more difficult for the bears as well. According to the data compiled by United States Geologicial Center, over the past 25 years, bear size has been diminishing. Smaller bears are more likely to starve when prey is scarce. The survival rate for bear cubs is also dropping. In addition to the scientific data, native Inpuats have observed changing weather patterns with growing alarm since the 1970s. In fact, scientists are using interviews with the Inpuat elders (who have dozens of different words to describe the look and quality of ice) to supplement their own data.

I gained a sense of urgency from what I heard and saw in Deadhorse but cannot say that the data held real surprises. Instead the biggest shock of the shoot was discovering that our pilots - Scotty and Harley - were fervently opposed to the concept of climate change. Scotty is a tough as hide, bush pilot with the look and swagger of a redneck, fifty-something Ernst Hemingway. His cohort, Harley was a bit more of a beta male. With four long days of sitting around and waiting for the weather to change, Scotty and Harley decided that it would be the perfect time to take on the liberal media conspiracy (me) because they didn't believe in global warming. This surprised me. I figured that as hunters they would have also noted the diminishing animal populations and the rising temperatures. But their position, even in the face of irrefutable scientific evidence and common hearsay, was that the world is too big and we are too insignificant. Therefore, no one can really know for sure if human activity has raised the temperature and effected climate change.  I did my best to convince them that their position is a dangerous response to a problem that is well documented and undeniable. We parted amicably enough - they didn't want to infuriate their client - but it  was sobering for me that these men could participate in our documentary remain unconvinced. What hope could we have that we would have an impact on the public at large.

After the isolation of Deadhorse, we were eager to arrive in the real town of Barrow, population 4,581 which is the northern most settlement in the United States.  With the oil companies subsidizing the native inhabitants, the town is a mix of well-tended, public buildings framed by whale jaw bones and cosy shacks with animal skins hanging out back to dry. The city government owns and manages thousands of acres of icy wilderness. In an attempt to monitor their environment, Barrow built a state of the art research center where visiting scientists measure the effects of climate change.  Dr. Stephen Hastings with the Global Change Research Group permitted us to accompany him by snow machine out onto the the arctic ice where he has planted a dozen or so towers to measure the exchange of carbon and energy between the ice and atmosphere.  As my snow machine made its clumsy path over the frozen terrain, I took in the vast whiteness of the ice that blended with the horizon of grey, bleached out sky.  Just as I was adjusting to the odd sensation that we were these existential beings engulfed in a milky netherworld, Hastings eased out his Mac Powerbook and plugged it into the ice to take a reading. Even here at the end of the world - for better and worse - we were still plugged in. After reading the data, Hastings explained some of the latest findings in his field. For most of recent history, the arctic has served as a filter, actually absorbing carbon and cleansing the air. Now that we are experiencing climate change, as the arctic ice melts, it releases carbon - and even worse - methane which is toxic for the atmosphere. What Hastings found particularly disturbing was the fact that no one had predicted that the C02 would be released so quickly. In short - the current situation is worse than the anticipated, worse case scenario.

The same can be said for the glaciers. Our next and final stop of our shoot was Valdez where we would be flying over the Columbia Glacier with Dr. Keith Echelmeyer, a glaciologist who has been studying ice masses for over twenty years.  To my unschooled eye, the icy mountain ranges rolled off into a majestic infinity. The gliding of an eagle, the darting rush of an arctic fox offered the illusion that we were witnessing a pristine state of nature. But to Echelmeyer what we were seeing revealed a history of retreat and disintegration. Hovering over the Columbia Glacier in our helicopter, Echelmeyer offered his overview of the changes wrought by climate change. Pointing to a ridge that was about ten blocks long he said, "The last time I was here, not more than five years ago, it was a glacier." We looked at the barren surface at the base of a high range of ice mountains. The entire area had melted away. What was left was a scar on the surface of the soil.

When I returned from my trip and had a chance to speak to different groups about my experiences, the big question, is, of course, 'what can we do?'  The most important thing we can do is vote for leaders who will make the issue of climate change among their highest priorities. Our best hope for the future will be that we take the lead internationally and come up with creative ways for emerging economies such as China and India to jump over 19th and 20th century style industrialization which has led to our current toxic environment. At the same time, I believe that as individuals we have an obligation to act responsibly. We each must push ourselves as far as possible to conserve whether that means driving hybrid cars or not even owning a car. We also need to look for ways to recycle, reduce energy consumption and tread lightly on our environment.

But rather than end on a dire note, I would like to describe a completely unexpected encounter that made me feel that we really are interconnected in strange but positive ways. Being a Jewish New Yorker working for German television sometimes makes for incongruous situations. On the third day of our shoot in Deadhorse, when we still had not taped a single minute of our report, I was sitting with the crew in the mess hall at the Arctic Caribou Inn. Calling it an "inn" is something of a misnomer - it is really nothing more than a jigsaw puzzle of pre-fab trailers that have been set up as temporary shelter for the oil workers. I was fighting my rising sense of panic that we weren't going to get our story. I had the meter clicking in my head, counting all the money that we were wasting on a helicopter and pilots and accommodations. Now no one really lives in Deadhorse. The guys - and it really is 98% male - fly in for a few weeks, make some money and then head home to Anchorage or wherever for some downtime. So as a German news crew, we kind of stuck out and everyone knew who were and that we were stuck, frittering away our budget and nervously monitoring the thick blanket of clouds like an expectant father in an old movie. 

I was sipping a watery coffee, feeling rather desperate when this tall, Inupat, young man of twenty-one comes over to our table and says in the most cheerful tone, "Hi, I'm John. So you're German TV - well my great grandparents are Holocaust survivors." The Germans sort of melt away and I turn to John and say, "I'm Jewish - I'd love to hear your story." It turns out that his great grandparents were survivors from Poland who settled in California after the war. His grandfather married a Native Alaskan woman at law school and is the only judge in Kotzbue, a small town on the coast. John started telling me enthusiatically about all the holidays that he celebrates with his grandparents - they light a menorah with arctic animals candle holders for Hanukah. They took him to the Holocaust museum with them in California and had him excused from reading the New Testatment at his private school.  It was when he got to the part about smearing animal blood on the doorpost of his house in Kotzbue that I gently told him that Jews haven't been doing that for a few thousand years as far as I know. I suggested an Mezzuah instead and sent it to him when I returned to New York.

With all of my adventures, somehow the story of the Jewish Eskimo smearing animal blood on Passover is the one that I'm asked to repeat the most often. I've been trying to figure out why. For one thing, it is absurdly funny but I suspect that it is more than that. Perhaps it is because it offers a somewhat more hopeful picture then the dire alarm sounded by the evidence documented on my trip. It suggests a world that is smaller than we imagine, that it is filled with unexpected juxtapositions, mysterious connections and inexplicable kinships that hint at new connections built on past misunderstandings and mistakes.