[10 May 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series and The Last Continent are two inter-related Canadian documentary productions that explore Antarctica to both study the impact global warming is having upon the continent and its inhabitants, and to help track how climate change is accelerating in the region and altering life there and on other parts of the Earth.
Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series is a three part program narrated by environmental activist David Suzuki. Part one, Islands at the Edge, sees the team of scientists and filmmakers following in the footsteps of earlier, pioneering Antarctic explorers, to reach islands like South Georgia and the aptly named Bird Island. Once there they track the populations of fur seals, elephant seals and albatross. Some wildlife is declining because higher temperatures are causing shortages in food and changes in the suitability of mating grounds, while other animals not traditionally found in certain areas are actually thriving because the rapid increase in seasonal temperatures is making it possible for them to move further south, thereby pushing competing local species out.
Changes in mating habits and habitat aren’t the only worrisome effects of climate change that can be easily seen in Antarctica. Part two of the series, A Window on a Changing World, focuses on the more subtle, but no less important, effect that climate change is having. It discusses the ancient ice shelves, what’s causing them to break apart, and how this affects climates around the world. It shows just how dramatically the continent is changing.
This episode also details the declining numbers of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula. A rapidly warming climate is causing an increase in snowfall, which in turn has caused an 80 percent decrease in that penguin population over the last few years. Eighty percent. That’s unfathomable. But it’s happening, and it’s heart-breaking.
The final part of Antarctic Mission is The Great Ocean of Ice, which explores the underwater world of the seas surrounding Antarctica. The team studies and documents amazing creatures like giant ribbon worms, sponges and dragon fish. These species have thrived in the frigid, otherwise inhospitable, depths for millennia. However, they, and the stability of the ecosystem of which they are a part, are facing great threats as the waters continue to warm.
Though it is very educational and features truly breath-taking cinematography, Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series is very difficult to watch. It raises a lot of questions and will make for some serious and necessary discussions, but be aware if watching with young children or highly sensitive souls that none of the harsh reality is softened. March of the Penguins or Planet Earth it’s not.
The Last Continent, a feature film originally released in 2007 and made by many members of the same team behind Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series is no less visually stunning or environmentally informative as it documents the 430 day voyage of the Sedna IV into the icy isolation of the Antarctic landscape. However, it is a bit less difficult to watch, for those who are sensitive. Part of that might be because the film is narrated, in soothing—but still serious—tones by Donald Sutherland.
The explorers aboard the Sedna are scientists, filmmakers and adventurers, and the expedition is led by director Jean Lemire. The mission is to allow the ship to be trapped, frozen in the ice for the long Antarctic winter, so that the group can study, record and analyze the effects that climate change is having on the region and on the world at large. It’s quite an undertaking for so many people to live in such a confined space for such an extended period of time, let alone to do so in one of the planet’s harshest environments.
So the beginning of the film is spent introducing us to the key participants and documenting their processes of deciding whether or not to commit to 14 months of isolation as the Sedna is sailing south to its destination. Once final decisions are made and the ship’s captain and crew have left our intrepid explorers moored in the ice, it becomes clear that the mission may be more than they were prepared to handle. The climate change is more serious and the temperatures much warmer than anyone had anticipated, which means the ice pack is not stable or thick enough to hold the Sedna. It also means that food storage, much of which relied upon having a solid ice pack to preserve perishables, becomes a problem.
There are some very tense scenes in which the researchers must battle the forces of nature and the effects of unseasonable melt. However, there are also beautiful, panoramic vistas and touching scenes of wildlife, inter-cut with the studies and struggles of the research and documentary team. A lot of the film is taken up by the fight against the elements that is frustrating the work that the film initially intended to document.
It’s rather poignant that the very thing they are there to study—global warming—is what is preventing them from being able to do so. Still, it’s this footage that makes the plight of our planet more obvious and desperate. One hopes that viewers can grasp the underlying importance and immediacy that The Last Continent demonstrates.
The Last Continent has more than an hour of extras, including 11 short featurettes on several indigenous species and specific events of the expedition. It also includes the trailer. Both The Last Continent and Antarctic Mission: The Complete Series will be of great interest to animal lovers, environmentalists and adventurers alike, and likely should be required viewing for all of Earth’s human inhabitants.