Ice & Sky film image

It was the bubbles in his glass of whiskey that gave French glaciologist Claude Lorius the idea.

And that idea – that Antarctic ice cores preserve tiny samples of ancient atmospheres – would eventually allow Lorius and his team of climate scientists to trace out the relationship between CO2 and global temperature through several hundred thousand years of Earth’s history.

This inspiring “aha” moment, critical for humanity’s understanding of climate change, is depicted in an online graphic novella, with voiced-over dialog and narration, as a part of a mixed-media module produced by film director and screenwriter Luc Jacquet.

Novella screen capture
Source: Ice & Sky website (video screen capture).

Best known for March of the Penguins, his 2005 Academy-Award winning feature-length documentary, Luc Jacquet has embarked on a months-long worldwide effort to communicate climate science – with a French twist.

Between now and the December meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, where their works will be on exhibit, Luc Jacuet and his Wild-Touch team plan to release three mixed-media modules, a television program, and a feature-length documentary. The first two modules, which include the animated graphic novella, are posted at the English-language edition of the Ice and Sky education website.

A Night at the Embassy

Uniting the different elements of this multimedia project is the life and work of Claude Lorius, now 83, who narrates much of the story himself.

Claude Lorius
Claude Lorius, now 83, narrates much of the story.

And images of Lorius often filled the screen in a recent preview of Luc Jacquet’s work at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Confirming the project’s role in France’s official preparations for the UNFCCC meeting, the preview was introduced by Segolene Royal, Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, and Energy. But it was Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environment correspondent for The Guardian, who interviewed Luc Jacquet before an audience of some 300 people. Clips from Ice & Sky, the documentary scheduled for release in October, and from the educational media were part of their discussion.

NOAA scientist George Watters and National Geographic explorer in residence Enric Sala came on stage for the final half-hour of the program. They placed Jacquet’s and Lorius’s observations about climate impacts on Antarctica – “It now rains in Antarctica” – in the broader context of global climate change. And they reinforced Jacquet’s takeaway message for the evening: “Don’t be afraid to make a change.”

Claude Lorius and Ice & Sky

Jacquet will try to bring about change by communicating climate science through Lorius’s very human story. That story fits Jacquet’s criteria for an effective documentary: emotionally engaging and a positive message.

As told in Ice & Sky and the accompanying educational media, Lorius’s story includes elements of adventure – he first went to Antarctica in 1956, when he was only 23 – and examples of extraordinary international cooperation.

Ice bubbles graphic

It also includes moments of inspiration, as when Lorius noticed the bubbles in his glass of whiskey:

As a lifelong investigator, Claude still remembers the moment when his finest scientific intuition was conceived. In 1965, he was in charge of the Dumont D’urville Antarctic Station. At the end of a harassing day of drilling, they dropped in their glasses samples of thousand year old ice cubes. Claude suddenly became quiet: Where are the bubbles coming from? What if the air trapped in the ice came from ancient climates?

Spurred by these questions, Lorius negotiated with Russian scientists to obtain samples from their much-deeper ice core at Vostok. Then, with help from both Russians and Americans, Lorius arranged to transport those cores from Antarctica to his lab in Paris, where he and his team extracted and analyzed the gas from each segment. After a decade of work, Lorius and his team reported their results in three related articles published in the October 1, 1987, issue of Nature.

One of the three articles focused on the “160,000-year record of atmospheric CO2” provided by the Vostok ice core; another presented “the continuous isotope temperature record over the last climatic cycle (160,000 years).” In the adjacent graph from “Warnings from the Ice,” an April 1998 Nova program, the data from the two articles (and a third, unrelated study) are brought together in a single graph.

Vostek Climate Records chart

By 1997, in another article for Nature, Lorius and his colleagues had identified “Four Climate Cycles in Vostok Core.”

Subsequent work by others has extended the timeline back almost 600,000 years. But current levels of CO2, as Al Gore melodramatically showed with his supersized graph in An Inconvenient Truth, are “off the chart.” Jacquet’s Ice & Sky will clearly document that Lorius, too, was and is alarmed by the abrupt rise of this critical greenhouse gas.

What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic

One of the challenges faced by climate scientists like Lorius and documentary filmmakers like Jacquet involves explaining the connections between the polar regions and the daily lives of the overwhelming majority of people who will never see the Arctic or Antarctica.

At the embassy event, George Watters, a NOAA research fishery biologist, pointed out that Americans consume much of the fish caught in polar waters, especially Antarctica. The changing ecology of those waters could result in smaller catches – and thus change what’s on the menu in American restaurants.

Marine ecologist Enric Sala was much more direct: Shrinking sea ice is affecting global weather patterns. The emergence of a northwest passage through the Arctic Ocean will also change shipping lanes and the distribution of naval forces, with potentially serious implications for international relations.

“What happens in the Arctic,” he said with a smile, “doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

Helping the Next Generation Deal with the Climate It Will Inherit

Jacquet is acutely aware that future generations will bear the brunt of these impacts. “I’m not proud of [what we’re handing down to our children],” he told Goldenberg, “but they have to deal with it, and we have to help them deal with it.” Today’s teenagers, he added, must be able to answer a critical question for themselves: “How can I manage my life with this problem?”

Ice and Sky graphic
Source: Ice & Sky website (video screen capture).

To meet that challenge, young people need hope. Although Lorius’s research delivers a dire warning, Jacquet finds hope in his life story: “Claude is a positive human being.” In Ice & Sky, Jacquet will present both: the negative warning and the positive confidence. “I still believe in humankind,” he said, “very deeply.”

Not that Ice & Sky will provide “the answer.” Meeting the challenges of climate change will be an ongoing process, Jacquet said in an exchange with Yale Climate Connections after the embassy event: “No one film is going to do it.”

An Inconvenient Truth did some important groundwork, Jacquet pointed out. And he said films like Snowpiercer* are making climate change part of the larger cultural conversation. He is just adding to that conversation. As a filmmaker, he said to Goldenberg, “it is my duty to do something for the planet.”

And for the next several months, that “something” will involve his telling the story of Claude Lorius as effectively and compassionately as he can. A third mixed-media module is to be added to the education website in September. Jacquet said he still is working out details for the American distribution of Ice & Sky next fall.

Whether he then plans to celebrate with something bubbly, he did not say.

*Editor’s note: Translated to film by the Korean director, Joon-ho Bong, and starring the American actor, Chris Evans, Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...