“It shows we live in a very, very special place and the earth is not something we can disregard; it is something we need to listen very carefully.
“When you see it, you feel like you are listening to the song of the earth. And when people are moved by a connection to a place, they learn how to act as stewards, as custodians, instead of people who exploit its resources.”
Made by young Western Australian filmmaker Briege Whitehead, the film showcases Antarctica’s sights and sounds from the squawks of a penguin colony to the lights of the Southern Aurora by using drones, new technology and 3D cameras.
If a viewer looks around while wearing 3D goggles, they may see Ms Whitehead sitting behind them in a helicopter, a penguin under their feet or feel slightly sick as they fly over a massive wall of ice.
The documentary features the work of scientists who work in some of the harshest conditions on the largest and oldest ice sheet on the planet.
Its message is gentle but unmistakable. Although Ms Whitehead said she’s baffled that some people still refuse to believe climate change was occurring, she did not “want to hit people over the head” but let them come to their own conclusions by showcasing the science and the icy cap’s fragility.
“When people get to experience something themselves, they’re far more likely to be moved by it,” she said.
“By giving viewers a slice of life in Antarctica, and letting them hear the voices of scientists, people will get the message.”
“What I hope [they’ll realise] is that climate change is real, and it’s much more urgent than they realise.”
Ms Whitehead profiles the research of three scientists: glaciologist Dr Sarah Thompson at Sorsdal Glacier, sea bird ecologist Dr Louise Emmerson and Dr van Ommen to show how climate change is affecting the icy continent that stores 80 per cent of the world’s waters.
Starting at Davis Station, the documentary shows where the 90 staff work and eat as they try to understand how climate changes hitting the southern continent will affect the rest of the planet. Later a helicopter lands, carrying the station’s most “precious cargo” – ice core samples that provide physical evidence of how CO2 levels have risen from 280 parts per million to more than 400 parts per million.
Few people get to visit Antarctica. Dr van Ommen, who has visited at least a dozen times over 25 years, said the Australian Antarctic Division agreed to participate because it was a way to convey its research to the taxpayers who fund it.
“It informs us about where we are driving the planet in terms of the climate, and it is our collective future,” he said.
Dr van Ommen, the program leader for climate processes and change at the Australian Antarctic Division, also captures the excitement that is building as Australian and European scientists prepare to attempt to find what he describes as the “Holy Grail” in ice core science – a continuous core of ice going back one million years.
Within two years, scientists expect to start digging 2800 metres deep into the ice in the hope of retrieving a core of ice that will record changes for a million years. Two parallel cores are planned, to provide the best chance of success and to validate findings.
The longest ice core record is 800,000 years. Scientists know that about this time, ice ages changed cycles: switching from 40,000-year to 100,000-year cycles.
Scientists understand why ice ages occur in cycles of 40,000 and 100,000 years (because of changes in the earth’s tilt and orbit). But the question they hope to answer is what triggered the change in the length of the cycle and whether it was because of changes in CO2 levels.
“We don’t know exactly when we will cross the thresholds for large long-term changes,” Dr van Ommen said this week. “The message is that we don’t fully account or understand how sensitive the state of the climate is to CO2 and the outcome of the grand experiment that humanity is doing at the moment.”
While predictions for climate change were broadly accurate, he said, the larger question was whether the earth could recover from these changes. “Are we are pushing the whole system into a state that’s going to be dramatically different, that you won’t be able to come back to anything like the present if you stop? These are big questions over long time scales.”
Most climate records only go back 150 years or so, he said. But by testing for CO2 levels in an ice core going back one million years, scientists would be able to see how the system operated in the longer term.
It was 27-year-old Ms Whitehead’s first 3D film: “It was a very steep learning curve in terms of the technology,” she said. She partnered with cinematographer and BAFTA award-winner Phil Harper – who worked with David Attenborough on his 3D film, Great Barrier Reef deep sea dive.
Before they started, she tested the equipment in an industrial freezer in Fremantle, WA.
“We didn’t know what technology was going to work best in the environment – because that had never been done before – so there was a lot testing of of equipment in minus 22 industrial freezers. We took cameras in there, and flew drones.” As a result, they realised that the drones’ batteries had to wear little jackets to keep them warm and they packed them with hand warmers.
For Ms Whitehead, every day of the trip was like the best day of her life.
“The first moment that absolutely floored me was standing on magnetic Island, which has a 10,000-strong Adélie colony. That was gobsmacking. That was the best day of my life. But a few days later, we went on the helicopter over the glaciers and banked over the front, and [I thought] this is the best day of my life. It is hard not to be blown away by the beauty.”
Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.