A life in the Arctic

My ties to the Far North are a culmination of nearly four decades of hands-on Arctic exploration and science. Fresh out of University, I got my “start” weighing and measuring seabirds on towering Arctic cliffs. Wildlife biology led to Arctic exploration. Eventually I began leading High Arctic expeditions.

Then came a project that hooked me on Arctic documentary work. I found myself sitting in a bright red expedition kayak navigating the 19th-century sea route of an obscure US polar explorer. My task was to lead the first-ever small boat journey to retrace the epic “escape by rowboat” of Lieutenant Adolphus Greely and his ill-fated Lady Franklin Bay Expedition

The In Search of Greely project

It’s the fourth week of June, 2004. I’m standing high on a coastal bluff of Canada’s northernmost island, looking out onto the stark, frozen whiteness of Nares Strait. Even with sunglasses, I have to squint against the glare. On the eastern horizon, the plateau of Greenland rises above a glistening shoreline. For all of its 25 mile width, the Strait is an unbroken white plain, completely ice covered for as far as the eye can see.

There are six of us. Our expedition started out on the northern edge of the Arctic Ocean, only 500 miles from the North Pole. It would be hard to find a more remote place on Earth. We are looking for open water – looking for any chance to paddle our boats – struggling against the same challenges of ice travel that Adolphus Greely and his crew faced on their 1883 passage. By all reports, we know that conditions have remained essentially unchanged here since the earliest days of polar exploration.

…today’s Arctic

Fast forward to 2017 and our Enduring Ice project. I am back in Nares Strait, traveling once again by expedition kayak. Peering from the same high bluff, the view across to Greenland is shocking. The Strait is a field of icy rubble stretching shore to shore. Embedded in half-frozen slurry, rafts of crumpled ice blocks stream relentlessly southward. Where once we had encountered vast sturdy sheets of unbroken sea ice, now there is a tumult of battered floes. The changes are palpable – it’s almost impossible to recognize this place. I’m wondering how our expedition team will make its way through such impasse. One thing for certain: there will be a story to tell.


What was not apparent to the polar science community in the early 2000s was that the Arctic Ocean and its sea ice were reaching the end of an era. During our Greely project, we had no idea that our observations would be unique to the past. Paddling beside floes the size of Manhattan, little did any of us suspect that kayak navigation in these waters might become an impossibility. Nor did we envision that in less than a decade the seas between Canada and Greenland would scarcely be freezing over in wintertime. It is amazing to look back and realize how rapidly the Arctic Ocean has changed. Who would have imagined that the frozen cover of an ocean region twice the size of the continental United States would be reduced – within a few short years – to a jumble of broken floes?

As a young wildlife biologist, I could never have foreseen the changes that would happen in my lifetime. But it turns out that I have inadvertently borne witness to the greatest environmental transformation of our time. No other part of our planet has changed so quickly. No other environment on Earth has lost three quarters of its mass – its physical solids – in scarcely four decades.

To me, as a documentary director and cinematographer, this ongoing transformation is oddly inspirational. Being a bystander to the changes has given me a unique point of view. From where I stand, it’s not hard to visualize how the Arctic Ocean is shifting from being a key component of our Earth’s cooling system to being part of its heating system. Groomed by hands-on science, and with insights gained through a lifetime of personal experiences in the polar regions, I’ve become energized with fresh perspectives. Exploring the frozen ocean has become a way to bring the story of a changing climate to life.

This project would not be possible without the dedication of the Enduring Ice expedition team. It is a privilege to have their ongoing participation and support. Also, working with polar oceanographer Chris Horvat has been incredibly valuable on so many levels. Chris has opened our eyes to the world of the climate modeler and given us a way of understanding the physical and chemical processes that determine the breakdown of Arctic Ocean sea ice.

albedo is my third feature documentary exploring a changing Arctic. My last feature Vanishing Point told the story of disappearing ice through the eyes of an Inuit elder whose culture was adapting to a changing Arctic. This time I’ve mobilized an expedition team to tell the story of Arctic transformation through what our eyes have seen.

Stephen Smith
Director, The Enduring Ice project