Documentary review: Antarctic Edge

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

antarctic_poster“May 2014: scientists declare West Antarctic ice sheet melt unstoppable.”

This quote appears at the beginning of Antarctic Edge: 70° South, and from there the viewer follows a crew of researchers on an Antarctic voyage filled with drama and adventure (see trailer below). In addition to providing a wealth of education about Antarctica, its fauna, and its role in climate change, Antarctic Edge introduces the viewer to a group of 22 oceanographers, marine biologists and chemists, ecologists, and geologists as they navigate their annual voyage to collect data at several points starting at Palmer Station on the West Antarctic Peninsula. This crew of specialists each have their own area of interest, from krill and zooplankton to Adélie penguins and humpback whales. The researchers must overcome equipment failure, weather uncertainties, and other unanticipated problems in their data gathering attempts.

Through the film we experience a small piece of the vast beauty that is the southern continent, and the unique adaptability and endearing qualities of its animal life. Information about the animals themselves, the types of research the scientists are doing on them, and the changes to their habitats due to climate change is interwoven effectively to create a documentary that holds one’s interest while imparting a good deal of memorable information. There are digitally animated portions of the film to explain climate change phenomena and food web concepts. Research occurs at three points on the West Antarctic Peninsula: Palmer Station, Avian Island, Charcot Island, as well as in the ocean between the sites.

closeupViewers learn that the number of days annually that winter sea ice covers areas off the coast of the West Antarctic Peninsula has reduced by 90 since record keeping began, and that the average temperature in Antarctica has increased by 11° F in the last 50 years. An intricate, quick, and informative portion of the film explains the carbon cycle of the southern ocean, showing why these statistics are important. Research at each scale, from bacteria and phytoplankton to whales becomes significant as the bigger picture of balancing the carbon budget is painted.
boat2This film represents a collaboration between the National Science Foundation, which funds this annual Long Term Ecological Research Project at Palmer Station on the sea ice ecosystem of the West Antarctic Peninsula, as well as several departments at Rutgers University: the Mason Gross School of the Arts and Center for Digital Filmmaking as well as the School of Environmental & Biological Sciences. Students participated actively in making the film, providing them with unparalleled career experience as well as environmental awareness. This collaboration between departments is an exciting example of the opportunities those of us in environmental studies fields can engage in.

Antarctic Edge would be an excellent classroom tool, combining science, charismatic fauna, and climate change information into a compelling story. It is available for educational institutions and community screenings through First Run Features. You can also stream it on Netflix and iTunes.

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