In The News

January 8, 2010

Sea Ice Loss Impacts Polar Bear Habitat

Data from a long-term study finds more polar bears in open water or on land, likely as a result of diminishing sea ice. Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Science Daily reports that a long-term study from 1979 to 2005 shows that polar bears today are found more frequently on land and open water than on ice in the fall, increasing the opportunity for human/bear interactions. Published in the December issue of Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America, the study documents significant polar bear habitat changes in response to differing ice conditions. Between 1979 and 1987, 12 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice, according to the study. Between 1997 and 2005, 90 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice. The number of bears sighted also increased during the study’s duration from 138 bears in the period of 1979 to 1987, 271 bears between 1988 and 1996, and finally to 468 bears between 1997 and 2005. NSF-funded and CPS-supported scientists like University of Wyoming’s Hank Harlow among others, are conducting polar bear research in part to better understand climate change’s impact on the creatures. Scientists studying sea ice extent have identified a decline in fall freeze since the late 1970s, a trend they suggest is related to climate change.

Spies Like Us

A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from 1999-2008. This image has been degraded to hide the satellite’s true capabilities. Photo: New York Times.

The New York Times reports that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is sharing data with climate science after resuming a collaboration that had been cancelled by the Bush administration. The two disparate groups seek to “assess the hidden complexities of environmental change … and insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests,” according to the article. Last year the collaborators studied reconnaissance satellite images of Arctic sea ice to identify summer melts from climate trends. In addition, the CIA has declassified images of the ice pack to speed the scientific analysis.

Filmmaker To Stop at Seattle Boat Show

The 57-foot Nordhavn Bagan will be on display at the Seattle Boat Show. Filmmaker Sprague Theobald piloted this vessel through the Northwest Passage last year during the making of a documentary. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

If, like us, you have been waiting to get a glimpse of more detailed footage from Emmy Award winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald’s 2009, five-month journey through the Northwest Passage, look no further than the 2010 Seattle Boat Show January 29-February 6, 2010. Theobald will show unreleased footage and give tours of his 57′ Nordhavn Bagan, which transported him and a small crew stocked with family members from Rhode Island to Washington State, via the Arctic.

In Out of The Cold

While much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing unusually bitter cold temperatures, climes in the far north are much warmer than usual. According to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the December average air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean region, eastern Siberia and northwestern North America ranged between 2 to 7 degrees Celsius. According to the report, Arctic Oscillation (AO) is likely causing the temperature disparities. Scientists refer to the current trend as a “negative phase” of AO, defined by high pressure systems in the Arctic and lower-than-normal pressures in middle latitudes.

The image below shows air temperature anomalies for December 2009, at the 925 millibar level (roughly 1,000 meters [3,000 feet] above the surface) for the region north of 30 degrees N.  Warmer-than-usual temperatures over the Arctic Ocean and cooler-than-normal temperatures over central Eurasia, the United States and southwestern Canada are documented here. Areas in orange and red correspond to strong positive (warm) anomalies. Areas in blue and purple correspond to negative (cool) anomalies.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division

Arctic Studies Pioneer Dies

Arctic studies pioneer and philanthropist Evelyn Steffannson Nef died on Dec. 9, 2009, at 96. Founder of Dartmouth College's arctic studies program, Nef also published two books on the Arctic. Photo: Courtesy

Evelyn Stefansson Nef died Dec. 9, 2009 in her Washington D.C. home at the age of 96. Nef was an author and philanthropist, and along with her husband, she helped found the first arctic studies program at Dartmouth College. Nef’s first two books, published in 1943 and 1946 respectively, were about Alaska and the Arctic. The University of Alaska granted Nef an honorary doctorate in 1998 for her foundational role in the early days of the field of arctic studies. Read more about Nef’s life here.

—Rachel Walker


Northwest Passage: The Making of a Documentary

November 29, 2009

On June 17, 2009, Emmy award-winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald, 58, left Rhode Island on a 57-foot Nordhavn powerboat with a crew of four to document a maritime expedition through the Arctic’s storied Northwest Passage. Once impenetrable, the ice-covered seafaring route became fully navigable for the first time in 2007 when the sea ice dramatically retreated. In 2008, the passage was also clear, and in 2009, Theobald embarked to make a film showcasing the stark wilderness. Able sailors and divers, the crew had never before braved the Arctic. They encountered significantly more ice than expected, but five months, many polar bears and one perilous ice trap later, they emerged safely in Seattle on November 5, 2009, with 250 hours of high-definition footage. This winter, Theobald will distill his material into a full-length documentary. Theobald sat down with us and reflected on his journey.

The Northwest Passage. Sprague Theobald's trip originated in Rhode Island and ended in Seattle five months later.

Polar Field Services: When did you first get the idea for this project?

Sprague Theobald: Years and years and years ago. I was very inquisitive as a kid and when I learned about the Northwest Passage in school, the first thing they said was that man can’t go through it. I hate the word “can’t.” Since then the passage has intrigued me, in part because I knew as I was growing up that if no one was up there going through it, no one had yet left their footprints. 

No footprints here. Theobald and crew make tracks in the Northwest Passage. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What was your intention/mission when you set out from Rhode Island?

Apart from simply documenting this great expedition, I wanted to show daily shipboard life of a family. But once we got to Greenland and saw the ice and got away from humanity, I saw that nature is so much bigger than any story we could tell from the boat.

What interaction did you have with native communities?

I was hoping to show the life in the communities we went to, but it was very hard to depict daily life. I was also thinking about doing more on the environment and climate change specifically, but then I thought the pictures spoke for themselves.

Would it have enhanced your experience to discuss climate change more and interview more experts?

Well, we interviewed two elders, hunters and two young geologists. Their anecdotal information differed. The elders both said the winters are getting longer and the ice is getting thicker, and the geologists said the ice was changing, seeing more run off. I didn’t want to make a climate change documentary. I wanted to show the pristine place in its rawness.

We do have footage talking about the potential impacts of oil and gas, and prospecting for diamonds and gold and nickel underground.

Were you already a fan of the Arctic or polar places?

Other than a scouting trip in 2008, I had never been there before. But the passage had such a legacy of expeditions trying and, if they made it back, saying it’s hell. My sense of adventure goes deep, and when someone says, “you can’t go there,” I think, “Why not?” 

The view from the boat—for five months. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What were your first impressions as you reached the Arctic by boat?

It was much different than I expected. I knew it would be isolated and desolate, but it was like the backside of the moon. There was no plant life; we went two months without seeing another boat or another person, and every time anyone went ashore onto the ice, two of us had to go together and we had to have guns.

Describe the environment.

The midnight sun was ethereal with a bluish cast to it. Human faces don’t look pink and healthy—they look blue and gaunt. It is really powerful. The wildlife was stunning.

Describe a typical day.

You wake up four different times and are always busy. You stand watch, are briefed as to what is going on, check the engine room, download the ice charts, weather charts, keep your eyes open for anything—a rogue piece of ice or whales getting ready to jump

What was typical progress and how much fuel did you use?

A good day would be 200 miles and we’d travel between 7.5 and 8 knots. The tank holds 2,200 gallons of fuel and we used a little less than 8,000 gallons, total. We got fuel in Greenland, and topped off the tank in Nome and in Sitka, and that lasted us to Seattle.

What were some of the more interesting shots you filmed?

It was all really stunning. And the underwater footage is incredible. Everyone has seen life above the ice. Seeing the hull of the boat coming through the ice is amazing.

You were stuck on the ice for several days. What happened?

That was horrific. Our options dwindled very slowly and inexorably. We had been anchored off of a small island downloading the ice charts, and saw a lead open in the ice. The next chart came down, and the lead was even bigger, so we went for it. We were halfway in it, when we saw a white wall coming toward us. The wind doesn’t drive the ice, the currents do, and the currents had changed.

On the first day we were trapped, in 18 hours we moved 17 miles. The next day we made two miles in five hours. I went to bed thinking the next thing I was going to hear was the crunch of the ice decimating the boat. But four hours later I woke up, and we were seven miles off the coast, had a small lead, and we pushed and pushed and began to work our way out of it. 

Icebergs show up on the radar. Theobald and crew were trapped in the ice when changing currents closed leads (openings in the ice) that previously looked open. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

What were the potential consequences of being trapped?

We couldn’t move. It was the first time in my life I had ever been without an option. We felt hopeless. We were trapped, caught, not moving. In the worst-case scenario, we would have had to abandon the ship and make our way to the closest civilization over ice.

Did you film during this crisis?

With great precaution we went out onto the ice and got some magnificent footage of the boat trapped. We also dove under the boat and locked in some great shots.

What was the most dangerous aspect of being trapped?

The ice felt like an avalanche in very slow motion, the compasses were all deviating because we were so far north, so we had to rely on GPS to navigate. We dropped anchor on the ice floe, and so we would move with the ice, but the current changed yet again and at one point, instead of being a mile and a half off shore, we were a quarter mile off shore. We were either going to wreck on the rocks or on the ice.

How did you get out of the situation?

Luck. The current changed again, and then we saw a small opening and we went for it as aggressively as we could. When we were finally liberated, there weren’t whoops of joy or loud yahoos. Everyone was so depleted.

You said you have an interest and eagerness to support or inspire the educational/scientific communities with your footage and experiences. What are some ways you envision doing that?

The goal for any documentary is for someone to sit there at the end and say, “I never knew that.” I want to open their eyes a little bit, and if I can develop partnerships with any scientists or educational outlets to use some of my footage to accomplish that, then that would be good.

When will we see the documentary?

It will take about three months to log all the footage, and by the beginning of the summer we’ll have a good rough cut. A lot of people have expressed an interest in seeing the footage, so right now I am working on creating a good five-minute teaser.

Much of your crew was related to you.

Yep, it didn’t start off as a family trip, but my crew included my stepdaughter, Dominique Tanton, 28, and stepson, Chaunce Tanton, 32, and their half brother and my son Sefton Theobald, 22.

This expedition pulled the family back together in a way that was totally unexpected.

When did you decide to make this expedition a reality?

In 2007. I was out to dinner with friends in New York and was asked if there was a trip I hadn’t yet done as a filmmaker, and the words “Northwest Passage” flew out of my mouth and were there on the table. And it was realistic, particularly with the ice opening up that summer. I had a boat, I had crew people in mind, and—this was before the economy fell apart—I had potential sponsors lined up to underwrite it.

Who were your sponsors?

Nordhavn, the boat manufacturer (and I owned a Nordhavn) signed on right away. But last September (2008) the economy began to crumble and they and my other sponsors had to pull out. I completely understood. They didn’t have the money.

How did you pay for the expedition, and what was your budget?

I used the proceeds from the sale of my home several years earlier. It was completely self-funded and cost me about $300,000.

What are your final thoughts on the expedition?

It was an astounding trip. I hope that whatever happens in the future with the Northwest Passage, we all use our brains about it. It truly is one of the last wild adventures.

In the Media

November 19, 2009

Documentary Filmmaker Completes Northwest Passage Trip


The M/V Bagan cruises past icebergs as she makes her way through The Storied Northwest Passage. Documentarian Sprague Theobald and Hole in the Wall Productions will bring us stories from their 5-month cruise. Photo: © HITW Productions;

Filmmaker Sprague Theobald completed a trip through the Northwest Passage, arriving in Ketchikan, AK, Oct. 27 on a 57-foot Nordhavn power boat, reports the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. Theobald and his crew, which included was his son, Sefton Theobald; master diver Greg Deascentis; and cameraman Ulli Bonnekamp, among others, departed Newport, R. I., on June 16. During the journey, the team was hit by an ice floe that trapped their boat in the ice for days. “It was worth the risk, but I would not do it again,” Theobold told Yachting Magazine. “We have yet to talk publicly about the more terrifying moments of the trip.” During the voyage, he interviewed Inuit elders, other sailors attempting the passage, politicians, and conservationists as he collected material for a full-length documentary, Braving the Northwest Passage, forthcoming. Learn more about the adventure at his blog.

Emmy-winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald eyes sea ice from the bow of the Began. Photo: © HITW Productions ( To visit the Web site, click on the picture.

Arctic Commercial Fishing Limits To Go Into Effect Dec. 3

The Associated Press reports that strict commercial fishing limits in the Arctic will go into effect Dec. 3, following a push from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a plan to regulate commercial fishing in the Arctic in the wake of melting sea ice. The restrictions prohibit industrial fishing in nearly 200,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.


Much Arctic Warming Linked To Sea Ice, Cloud Cover Changes

Icebergs in Columbia Bay, Alaska, are representative of ice bodies impacted by Arctic warming. Photo: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

A study published in the Nov., 2009, issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters asserts that much of the dramatic change documented in the Arctic over the past 20 years correlates with changes in sea ice concentration and cloud cover. Lead author Yinghui Liu (Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin) writes that sea ice loss in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the fall account for significant surface warming. Specifically, the researchers analyze the influence of trends in sea ice concentration and cloud cover on surface temperature in the Arctic from 1982 to 2004. They find that sea ice concentration and cloud cover play a large role in observed temperature trends. For instance, their analysis shows that surface warming associated with sea ice accounts for more than 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.62 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade of the observed 1.1 degrees Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade warming trend in autumn. In addition, in winter, cloud cover changes explain 0.91 degrees Celsius (1.64 degrees Fahrenheit) of the 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade surface temperature cooling, and in spring, 0.55 degrees Celsius (0.99 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade of the total 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) per decade warming is attributable to cloud cover. The authors note that their model provides insight into the causes of recent temperature trends and could be extended to study the influences of other parameters such as sea ice thickness.


Study Links Climate Change to California Drought

U.S. News & World Report publishes a story that the centuries-long droughts experienced by the state of California over the past 20,000 years coincided with thawing Arctic Ice Caps. The research, published online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters  by UC Davis doctoral student Jessica Oster and geology professor Isabel Montanez, present evidence from analysis of stalagmites from Moaning Cavern and Black Chasm in the central Sierra Nevada. The authors compared climate records from Greenland with the climate records from the stalagmites. At the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, California became much drier. When Arctic records indicate a cooling period about 13,000 years ago, the data show California experienced wetter weather. The scientists don’t offer an explanation for the relationship between Arctic temperatures and California’s precipitation. But the article says that climate models developed by others suggest that “When Arctic sea ice disappears, the jet stream—high-altitude winds with a profound influence on climate—shifts north, moving precipitation away from California.”

And Finally…

The Copenhagen Climate Conference is less than a month away (December 6 – 18).