Organic Farmer Travels to Arctic to Find Melting Sea Ice
August 2, 2021
HOPKINTON, R.I. — A documentary by a local farming couple about disappearing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will have its U.S. premiere at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in Newport from Aug. 9-15.
Shot in July 2017, Beneath the Polar Sun was produced and directed by Stephen Smith and Diana Kushner, a Hope Valley couple who operate Arcadian Fields Organic Farm. Smith and Kushner are explorers and environmentalists, and Smith is a veteran of several polar expeditions. A trailer for the documentary can be seen here.
A team of six, which included polar oceanographer Christopher Horvat of Harvard University, traveled to the Nares Strait, a narrow stretch of ocean between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, 500 nautical miles from the North Pole. Known as The Last Ice Area, the strait is a vital part of the planet’s cooling system.
The objective of the expedition was to paddle kayaks 300 nautical miles, from Fort Conger on northern Ellesmere Island, studying the world’s oldest, thickest sea ice.
Smith had traveled to the area in 2004 and paddled the 300 miles, so he thought he knew what the team could expect 13 years later. But Smith’s previous expedition, satellite imagery and even sophisticated climate models didn’t come close to preparing the team for what it encountered when it arrived. The ice was melting and breaking up, and the process was being accelerated by the 24-hour summer daylight of the far North.
The sea ice was disappearing, right before their eyes, and Smith was stunned by what he saw.
“Somebody like me, who spent a lifetime up there, who has this naive idea, ‘Well, we’ll just re-trace the journey that I did years ago … or at least, we’ll be able to do it,’ … this is a place that has changed so dramatically there’s no such thing as The Last Ice Area anymore, because The Last Ice Area is predicated on the idea that huge, multiyear ice floes will exist through this century. That’s why it’s called The Last Ice Area — and it doesn’t exist. There aren’t any really large floes left up there anymore,” he said.
The melting is accelerating, because of a process called a feedback mechanism. White snow and ice have “surface albedo,” a quality that reflects sunlight rather than absorbing it, but more open ocean water results in larger, dark surfaces which in turn absorb more light and heat from the sun. So as the ice melts, the ocean gets warmer even faster, melting the ice that remains.
Horvat explained the process, and its significance, in a scene in the film.
“In the Arctic, the surface is either white, reflecting the sun’s energy back out to space or it’s dark, absorbing the sun’s energy,” he said. “Earth’s albedo is a big part of what keeps us from cooking under the sun. It keeps the earth cool.”
Smith said the remaining Arctic Ocean ice belies the rapid melting taking place. What used to be a solid, year-round ice sheet is now fragmented and on the move, away from the Arctic, which has lost three quarters of its ice volume.
“We don’t get it, and the reason why we don’t get it is because we look out there and we see there’s lots of ice,” Smith said. “What we don’t get is, it’s ice that’s highly mobile now. It’s able to make its way through all these cracks and crannies, it’s able to make its way down through these passages — and we’re going to have ice, and we’re going to have ice — and all of a sudden, one day, we’re just not going to have ice.”
Horvat said the expedition was a groundtruthing of the data he usually analyses from afar.
“Like many polar oceanographers, I do my research remotely,” he said. “I work with equations, I work with computer models, and I interpret satellite imagery. Most of the time I sit at a desk. I’ve been to the Arctic just once before. I was on an icebreaker, confined to the ship. It’s a different experience, having my feet on the ice, seeing everything up close.”
The broken ice was almost impossible to navigate, a slog that is painfully evident in the documentary. After five grueling weeks of dragging loaded, 400-pound kayaks through icy slush and over giant slabs of broken ice, sleeping in a fragile tent on shifting ice floes and coming dangerously close to running out of food, the team ended the expedition after traveling only 60 miles.
The farming connection
The Arctic Ocean may be thousands of miles from the Hopkinton village of Hope Valley, but Kushner said what is happening there affects Rhode Island.
“The focus with melting ice has been on glaciers for so long and when glaciers melt, sea level rises, and that affects people on the coast, and if you don’t live right on the ocean, you might go ‘sea-level rise, whatever, I don’t care,’” she said. “But when sea ice melts, it changes the temperature of the Arctic Ocean, and it changes ocean currents; it changes the jet stream; it changes the weather for everyone.”
An organic farmer for two decades, Kushner said she has to adapt to sudden and unanticipated impacts of a changing climate, including new insect pests and a shift in plant hardiness zones.
“I’ve been farming in this spot for 21, 22 years, and the zones have shifted, and now there’s about four more weeks of summer,” she said.
The climate crisis has been very much in the news this summer, as much of the planet bakes and floods and burns. Smoke from Canadian wildfires has impacted air quality to the point of prompting an alert from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Given what is at stake, and the technological capability now available to scientists, it would seem unlikely that Smith would have any difficulty persuading people to watch the film and grasp the significance of what the team had found, but that’s exactly what happened.
“We just had a really hard time getting people to even look at it, frankly,” he said of the film. “I think part of it is, environmental stories are really difficult to sell. And then, it’s an Arctic story and the Arctic is a long way away and there’s a lot of ice and there’s all of that stuff, right? So it’s really hard for people to see it as relevant, and when I say that, I’m not talking about the public. I’m talking about decision-makers. So people at these various NGOs and so on, somehow, it’s hard for them to have the imagination that something like this could actually be a bit of a window into a major part of the world’s environment that’s essentially struggling.”
The project was sponsored by The Redford Center, a California-based nonprofit, and funding came from private donations. There were also in-kind contributions of custom-built ocean kayaks and special clothing, all of which had to be packed into a small plane and flown to the site.
“We had so much in-kind support,” Kushner said. “The airlines gave us an 80 percent discount, and there’s a little hotel that you have to stay at and it’s something like $400 a person per night, and they just put us up for free.”
“Beneath the Polar Sun” will be available for viewing on the Rhode Island International Film Festival website once the festival begins. The film will premiere at the festival Aug. 9 at the Misquamicut Drive-In Theater in Westerly.
Editor’s note: In November 2017, Stephen Smith and Diana Kushner were featured on an ecoRI News podcast about their adventure.