In Depth

Polar Route for Cable News

North Pole Ice Melt, Imperiled Bears Spur Expeditions, Coverage on MSNBC and CNN

Global warming, ice melt at the North Pole and the presumed decimation of the polar bear are big issues for conservationists and big news in the environmental arena, and producers at both CNN and MSNBC wanted to get a firsthand look at the point of origin.

MSNBC purchased a documentary based on the DAMOCLES (Developing Arctic Modeling and Observing Capabilities for Long-term Environmental Studies) Project, composed of 45 scientific organizations worldwide. Some of those DAMOCLES scientists spent from May 2006 to February 2008 adrift in the Arctic waters, working aboard the research ship Tara, which also carried members of a French film crew documenting the perilous journey.

The resulting 90-minute film, shot on the ice in high definition, explores both the perils of the expedition itself and the fragility of the receding Arctic ice, with its ramifications for the Earth’s climate and population in the coming decades.

Network producers will “re-edit, take out a half-hour and put in CGI graphics and interviews with the Scientific Naval Institute and other people who’ve been studying global warming,” said MSNBC longform producer Tim Smith. “Journey to the Top of the World” will air in January, he said, and will include new footage that will be shot at the Pole with an MSNBC anchor.

“We wanted to tell a story about global warming, but not through a ‘survey’ approach. We didn’t want to do a power-point presentation,” Mr. Smith said. “We wanted a fly-on-the-wall story, with wonderful human drama and a scientific story on top of it. We feel this is an effective way of reaching out to people.”

Emmanuel Roblin, who co-directed the French film along with Thierry Ragobert, said on the project’s Web site: “This movie is not one more movie on the devastation caused by CO2 but rather an attempt to understand how warming affects the Arctic and how the Arctic influences the rest of the planet.”

The scientists, Tara crew and filmmakers “fought incessantly against the cold, permanent night or day, the movements of ice sheets or the storms … and the threat of the bears, driven to the heart of the Arctic because of the ice pack disappearance.”

The crew’s most disturbing finding, Mr. Smith said, is that “the ice is melting so much faster in the Arctic than anyone anticipated.” It’s melting so fast, in fact, that scientists from the DAMOCLES Project believe the Arctic summer ice pack will melt away within the next 10-15 years—much more rapidly than earlier predicted, even by so-called “doom and gloom” experts.

According to the expedition’s Web site, some scientists aboard Tara predict the summer ice pack could disappear within 8-10 years.

“This extreme climate event of global importance would have enormous consequences on our environment and consequently drastic socioeconomic impacts affecting human beings, human health and human activities, in particular for inhabitants living in Europe, North America, Russia and Siberia.”

According to those predictions, if the Arctic summer ice pack disappears, 80% of the solar energy the ice would normally reflect back into the atmosphere will presumably be absorbed by the oceans, leading to accelerated melting of continental ice on Greenland and increasing sea level elevation by about 1 meter before the century ends.

CNN Excursion

Last year, CNN’s four-hour environmental documentary “Planet in Peril” sent anchor Anderson Cooper along with medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Animal Planet wildlife biologist and host Jeff Corwin to the South Pacific’s sinking Carteret Islands and other locations that are already facing dire consequences due to rising sea levels.

This year’s two-hour follow-up, “Planet in Peril: Battle Lines,” also visits the North Pole, where the ice has become a melting battleground for another conflict, this time for ownership of natural resources buried on the ocean floor.

“Who owns [the ice pack]? Who owns what’s underneath it?” said “Planet in Peril: Battle Lines” executive producer Charlie Moore. “Everyone’s interested in it. The U.S. is actively mapping the ocean floor to figure out how far the continental shelf extends, because it’s been estimated that 25% of the world’s remaining oil reserves are there. And we’re the ones who haven’t signed the Law of the Sea Treaty.”

The Third United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty was adopted in 1982 to establish rules governing the world’s oceans, replacing previous treaties and providing development financing for underdeveloped and developing nations. It also requires countries that sign the treaty to adopt regulations to control marine pollution and establishes limits on the ocean areas that countries can claim.

“Everybody’s after those resources,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s pretty ironic, considering it’s because of global warming that the ice is melting enough for people to get to them.”

This year, CNN added award-winning journalist Lisa Ling to the investigative team for “Planet in Peril: Battle Lines.” Ms. Ling, who has reported on gang rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech massacre and other stories as a special correspondent for “Oprah,” will join Mr. Cooper and Dr. Gupta. “She has a unique set of investigative skills that fit with the tone this time out,” Mr. Moore said.

In addition to the North Pole, the “Battle Lines,” investigative team visited Cameroon and the Congo, where lack of food has driven residents deep into the jungle, only to find they are exposed to deadly and previously unknown diseases; Indonesia, where operations to strip shark fins have helped decimate the world’s shark population by 90%; and South Africa, Peru, the U.S., Taiwan, Rwanda and other locations. But Mr. Moore insisted the documentary is “not all doom and gloom.”

“In Rwanda, where a million people were killed just a decade ago, the country said, ‘How can we pull this country back from the brink?’” he said. “So they put their energy back into their own natural resources.”

The primary resource is the mountain gorilla, and there are fewer than 700 of them left in the world, more than half in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, where National Geographic Adventures, Gorilla Safaris and other groups bring in tourists to see the animals Diane Fosse spent her life studying. The remaining gorillas are just over the border, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Rwanda has now become a model for shaky countries, to learn how to protect and promote their own natural resources,” Mr. Moore said. “That tourism is the third-largest generator of foreign capital for the country. They have a vested interest in protecting their natural resources.
“When you look just over the border at the Congo, they have the same population of gorillas, and it’s terribly unstable,” he said. “If Rwanda’s a model of how to do it right, then the Congo is a model of how to do it wrong. No one even knows if their gorilla population is alive, because no one can get to the area where they are anymore.”

CNN plans to air the hi-def special later this year.