Scientists are not only the deathly pale people in white cloaks with hunched backs from bending over a microscope all day. For example glaciologists – that is experts on glaciers and ice in general – use maybe a slightly less sophisticated, but a lot more interesting equipment. Dynamite, a sledge, a scooter and a big barrel of petrol. Those from the film Monitoring a Glacier use this equipment to study how glaciers move.
The three-member international expedition led by Coen Hofsted from the Alfred Wegener Institute set out to the Russell Glacier in Greenland. They want to find the answer to a simple question. It is estimated that if this huge glacier melted at once, the ocean level would rise by up to seven metres. This number is an estimate though, besides, no one knows in what way and how this would happen. If you want to calculate something like that – that is create a dynamic model of such a process – it is necessary to know the mechanism by which huge icebergs peal off the glacier into the sea.
For that you need to know another huge amount of information, for example what the bottom of the glacier looks like. Does the glacier float on water? Is it frozen to the ground? Does it grind along rocks? The best option is to release seismic waves into the ground and measure their response. The members of the expedition need to set off 200 explosions in a day and record the data. The competition film Monitoring a Glacier shows the harsh, but in many ways romantic work glaciologists need to undergo in search for the answers to their questions.
You studied veterinary medicine, but since 2002 you have been working as a producer and author of ﬁlms on nature. Why have you swapped veterinary tools for a camera?
I’ve always been interested in ﬁlms and loved to go to the movies while I was studying. It was kind of contrast to bone up on medical facts. Surprisingly the further I got with my studies the more my passion for ﬁlms and ﬁlm making grew. In the semester breaks I took lessons in documentary ﬁlm, script writing and ﬁlm production just because I was so interested in that kind of stuﬀ.
After I got my ﬁnal degree I had to make a decision. I quitted veterinary medicine worked as an editor for a book publisher took took courses on ﬁlm. Then I got the good opportunity to work on my own little ﬁrst documentary for TV and I took the plunge.
You shot your ﬁlms in Germany and Israel. The Arctic is a completely diﬀerent world – both in terms of distance and in terms of climate. How did it happen that you joined an expedition of glaciologists?
The production company Hoferichter & Jacobs already shot a documentary in Antarctica with the cameraman I went to Greenland. With him I did some ﬁlms before and was thrilled about his experiences in the ice. The team stayed in contact with the Alfred Wegener Institute. One day the idea was born: To accompany a team of scientists to an ice-edge of our world. On top of a glacier to ﬁnd out how the ice under our feet is moving.
I think that’s why we like our job so much: We explore diﬀerent parts of the world and collect some more knowledge about our life. To visualize these explorations is the greatest challenge.
The ﬁlm doesn’t tell us what the scientists found out in the end. Could you tell us what it looks like at the bottom of the glacier?
The bottom of that special glacier – the Russell Glacier – is like the rocky landscape we see in front of the glaciers edge in the ﬁlm. The ice slides and scratches over the rocks below. Sometimes it moves slowly sometimes much faster. What the scientists discover in our ﬁlm is a lake hundreds of meters in the ice. The water makes the ice on top of the lake move faster like a waterski, which moves much better on water than on rocks. But that’s only one of many factors which make a glacier move faster.
What the scientists don’t and can’t solve right now is the big question about the worldwide melting of glaciers. Scientists have to study the glaciers more intensively in the next decades to learn much more about the dynamics of glaciers and to make better forecasts.
What is the most diﬃcult thing for ﬁlmmakers in the Arctic? What do they have to watch out for the most?
And it was a challenging, rough and icy adventure. For our tiny team – me and the cameraman – and the equipment. As you might see in our ﬁlm it was a spartan camp on the ice in a pur white landscape. The camp seems to be very small and you feel that the ice is stronger than you. That’s why you’ve got to build a great team. You depend on one another more than in a civilized world. And you know you have to get along with each other and you do. Scientists and ﬁlmmakers.
In the ice shooting a ﬁlm is much more exhausting. For the man and material. The ice crystals in snow drifts often made it diﬃcult, sometimes impossible to shoot. Once the camera seemed to have a nervous breakdown as it ﬂashed cryptic error messages. Then you’ve got to stay calm and hopeful. In the end we were lucky the camera started rolling again.