Surviving the Polar Regions

by Naomi Murfitt


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




It's hard to imagine how organisms survive in the icy wilderness of the Arctic and Antarctic where temperatures can plummet to -50 ºC, freezing the blood in your veins in a matter of seconds, fierce icy winds can reach more than 200 mph, and darkness reigns for months at a time.

But the polar regions are home to an elaborate array of marine life, land mammals, birds, and even humans - all of whom have developed unique strategies for survival in this extreme environment.

The treacherous conditions of the Poles and the amazing survival techniques of the animals who live there have been the focus of many programmesproduced by world-leading maker of factual programming, Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ). But to bring home magical images from the ends of the Earth, the company's film crews must endure their own fight for survival.

NHNZ was the first film production company to send a crew to winter over in Antarctica, staying at Scott Base, the New Zealand camp in McMurdo Sound. Each of the crew members underwent rigorous training on arrival to ensure they could build ice huts and retrace their tracks in the winter darkness in case of an emergency.

The equipment also had to be 'winterised', a process where a special lubricant is used to prevent the cameras seizing up in the cold conditions. Large-capacity lithium batteries are used for filming in the Poles because the cold diminishes the battery's charge, and these must be kept next to the operator's body to keep them warm.

Then, in 1997, another NHNZ crew ventured south onboard the US icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer, and succeeded in reaching the Ross Ice Shelf - further south than any vessel had ever gone before in winter. The crew set off just as the big freeze began to set in to investigate the dramatic cycle of freeze and thaw in the seas around Antarctica for the programme The Crystal Ocean.

Winter isn't a pleasant time for most of us but think yourself lucky! At the top and bottom of the world winter brings up to six months of darkness and traps everything in an unforgiving icy grip. Mammoth icebergs are halted in their drift around the continent, and the lives of animals above and below the ice are often suspended. The sea becomes a single sheet of ice up to three metres thick that icebreakers can barely gorge a path through.

Onboard the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer, the NHNZ crew shared some tense moments, particularly when they were woken up in the middle of the night by a loud, screechingsound.

'The terrible noise seemed to be coming from all around the vessel,' said assistant producer Jeanie Ackley. 'Wind changes had caused the ice sheets on both sides to move at the same time, suddenly exerting tremendous pressure on the hull as it was pinched by the ice. Just feeling that squeeze makes it's easy to understand how ships can literally be crushed to pieces in this situation.'

If you think that's severe, nature really showed its true colours in NHNZ's film Katabatic when the crew positioned itself in the path of Antarctica's deadly wind to witness it carving the icy plains into an eerie icescape.

During the shoot NHNZ cameraman Mike Single resorted to sleeping outside under the stars rather than under the shelter of a tent.

'The fierce winds made the tent flap so loudly that it was deafening - like trying to sleep underneath the engine of a huge 747 aircraft,' said Single. 'Although it was still noisy outside, at least I was able to get some sleep.'

But film crews only have to battle the elements for short periods of time; how does anyone or anything survive in this lethal environment long term?

To explore the miracle of life at the Poles the crews turned their attention to filming the survival tactics employed by polar bears and penguins. They discovered that female polar bears dig themselves underground dens where they suspend their metabolic rate throughout winter, only to emerge with newborn cubs in tow as spring arrives.

Not a bad idea but, as Ice Worlds' researcher Alison Ballance explains, this technique can result in great confusion for the bears.

'Some bears build their den on sea ice rather than land ice and can drift as far as 600 miles while they sleep. You can imagine how disoriented they are when they crawl out of the den in spring!'

Winter is not quite as sedate for male Emperor penguins, who remain exposed to the coldest temperatures on Earth, incubating the eggs laid by their mates. They huddle together for warmth throughout the chilling winter months until the females return to resume their mothering duties when the weather begins to improve.

The Ice Worlds' crew also met a variety of humans inhabiting the Poles - traditional Arctic people such as Inuit and Saami reindeer herders, and relative newcomers such as oil-workers, scientists and intrepid explorers - and discovered that despite rigorous training and special clothing on the one hand, and traditional knowledge on the other, conditions can still get the better of the experts.

While filming in the Arctic, the Ice Worlds' crew came across an Eskimo woman in Alaska whose skidoo had partially fallen through the ice on a frozen river. Luckily the crew came to the rescue and freed both the woman, who had got wet in her adventure, and her skidoo. It could have been an extremely dangerous situation and, it occurred to the crew later, also presented a bizarre situation: the NHNZ crew, fresh from New Zealand, rescuing an Eskimo from the ice, rather than the other way around!

© NHNZ Ltd 2002. Natural History New Zealand Ltd is a television production company based in Dunedin, New Zealand. It is one of the world's largest producers of wildlife, adventure, travel, science, health and culture documentaries, in addition to co-producing with broadcasters around the world including the USA, Japan, Germany and the UK.



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