A portrait of three intrepid glaciologists brings the reality of climate change and glacial melting into sharp focus in this powerful documentary
Into the Ice
Lars Henrik Ostenfeld
CPH:DOX Film Festival
A MAJESTIC aerial shot of the Arctic landscape opens Lars Henrik Ostenfeld’s epic documentary Into the Ice. Then his narration hits us with the hard truth: “The Greenland inland ice harbours a secret. You can see our future in it.” As if to illustrate what that future might look like, the camera then pans to deep rivers of meltwater.
The message of Ostenfeld’s film is familiar, yet what sets it apart is its focus on the fieldwork of three of the world’s leading glaciologists: Alun Hubbard, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen and Jason Box. Ostenfeld travels with them, on three separate trips, to the Arctic as they monitor how fast the Greenland ice sheet is melting.
Ostenfeld provides intimate portraits of the researchers, highlighting their distinct personalities and the motivations behind their work. Box is a family man who, when he isn’t playing with his daughter, is happiest digging the snow while listening to ABBA’s hit Chiquitita. Hubbard, the most adventurous of the three, embraces the idea of living every day as “a complete surprise”. His perilous descent into the depths of a seemingly bottomless crevasse is a case in point.
Dahl-Jensen, as Box describes her, is “about science with a capital S” and is dedicated to drilling ice cores as a window into the past. “When you walk through ice, you walk on climate history,” she says. She points to a darker ice layer, which dates from the last glacial period, while a more distant, lighter part is from an interglacial period.
During his time with the researchers, Ostenfeld becomes fully immersed in their work and their mission. His presence is well balanced and respectful, and his feelings of concern, fear and admiration emerge beautifully through his intimate voice-over commentary.
In this way, Ostenfeld achieves his aim of creating a strong empathic bond with the audience. This allows him to deliver a more serious message about the importance of studying changes in the ice as they are happening, no matter how perilous an undertaking it may be.
Throughout, we learn how the study of ice and its history are essential to uncovering the scope and consequences of climate change, and the importance of collecting and analysing data that will help us update our predictions of global sea level rise.
The initial light-hearted tone and good humour of the scientists gradually give way to a more serious feel as the realities of life and work in the Arctic become clear. We see the scientists face a lashing storm that forces them to hide in their tents for two days. And we feel their fear and excitement as they take on the elements to gather data.
The dangers of fieldwork become only too apparent as Box learns of the death of his mentor, climate scientist Konrad Steffen, who fell into an ice crevasse elsewhere in Greenland, on a separate research trip.
Towards the end of the film, Box and Hubbard head back into the deep crevasse to resume their work, only to discover an uncomfortable truth: the meltwater under the ice has progressed to a level never seen before. The glaciers are melting at a faster pace than we thought and our predictions of sea level rise are probably too cautious.
Accompanied by striking imagery and an engaging instrumental score, Into the Ice is a powerful documentary and one of the unmissable titles of this year’s festival season. It doesn’t try to soften the blow or to end on a hopeful note. Instead, it is a touching wake-up call, rich in sincerity and brutal home truths.
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