In Depth

Sanders on Top of the World

Sun Never Set on NBC News Reporter’s Global Warming Trip

When NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders set out to do a piece on global warming, he went to the top of the world. Mr. Sanders said the news team wanted to do the story “from the North Pole—ground zero, which is ice on the ocean—rather than from Greenland, which is ice on land.”

The result, “Ice Melt From the North Pole,” is one of three finalists for the Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Reporting on the Environment in the television category.

To get the story, Mr. Sanders and his cameraman, Dmitri Solvyov, traveled from Miami to New York and then to Helsinki, Finland, and finally to Murmansk, Russia, a city of 700,000 north of the Arctic Circle.

Once they left Russia, it took 15 days to get to the North Pole aboard a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

“This wasn’t so much a story to answer questions about whether [the climate change] is man-made,” Mr. Sanders said. “It was an opportunity to explore a crisis facing Mother Earth. So as much as it’s talked about, we thought it was better to get there and physically stand on the North Pole. We wanted to take the viewers to the location that, frankly, nobody else has taken them.”

The news crew traveled from Murmansk to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions. “We got on board the ship (the icebreaker Yamal) and found out the sun never sets—and also that we weren’t allowed to take any pictures.

“Murmansk is the home of a Russian nuclear fleet,” Mr. Sanders said, “but after a fair amount of negotiating, we found out how to get our pictures and get the story under way.”

Once the Yamal hit the ocean ice, he said, “There was a constant groan of cutting ice. We had an attentive crew—whenever they saw a polar bear or a walrus, they would let us know. Dmitri, a native Russian, would shoot the pictures.”

The NBC crew had hoped to contact a Russian research vessel that was already collecting data near the Pole, but “radio communications are limited, and satellite communication is almost impossible,” Mr. Sanders said. After days of traveling, “We finally got to where we could see the research vessel, and the Russian crew decided they were willing to get us there. There was a helicopter on board, and they flew us over.”

Once the decision was made to fly to the research ship, the adventure took a darkly comic turn.

It was remarkably warm by North Pole standards, Mr. Sanders said, “mid-20s to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and we piled out of the helicopter onto the ice, and my foot went right through the ice down into sludge. We had 500 to 1,000 yards to go in this melting ice in order to reach the research ship. There was rain and sleet, and it was brutal on the equipment. The Russian security team was standing there with their guns, ready to shoot a polar bear if it came out of the water, which was pouring into my boots.”

The icebreaker had been unable to radio the research vessel, so no one knew they were coming. “They hadn’t seen anyone for three months,” Mr. Sanders said, “so they were happy to see us. We got on board the vessel and the cameraman backed up one step and fell down a hole in the boat. He was thankfully OK. And they had a dog, an Alaskan husky that was trained to bark to warn them of polar bears, but it was so excited it ran around barking like mad because of all the people.”

The research vessel contained a variety of ice experts, geologists and scientists from Russia, Scotland, New Zealand and the U.S., and “it was complete chaos.”

After spending just one hour aboard the vessel, with barely any time to speak to the scientists, the helicopter crew announced it was time to go. So the news crew trudged back to the helicopter and returned to the icebreaker, which took them on to the North Pole.

The ice itself turned out to be the story Mr. Sanders was not expecting. “It turned out to be the greatest ice melt on record,” he said. Graphics furnished by NASA helped explain satellite photos, and, “You could see the ice disappearing” on the visuals. “It was scientific data people could understand, showing how ice reflects the sun, and how water absorbs the sun’s rays when the ice is gone.”

The icebreaker spent two days at the North Pole, Mr. Sanders said, adding that he had no intention of doing a political story on global warming. He praised NBC’s commitment to environmental reporting, but said he is “not doing advocacy journalism. I want to give the facts as we know them. But so many times conclusions are drawn before people have the facts.”