Interview With Exec Producer of Between Earth and Sky documentary (2017)
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Between Earth and Sky movie examines climate change through the lens of impacts to native Alaskans, receding glaciers, and arctic soil.
The island of Shishmaref has been home to the lnupiaq people for thousands of years. As sea ice retreats and coastal storms increase the people of Shishmaref are faced with a disappearing island and a 200 million dollar price tag to move their people with an untold cost on their culture and history.
I met Prof David Weindorf, the Executive Producer of Between Earth and Sky in 2016 at the American Society Agronomy conference in Pheonix. Prof Weindorf is the Associate Vice President of Office of Research and Innovation at Texas Tech University and BL Allen Endowed Chair of Pedology.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to interview Prof Weindorf while organising movie premiers in Cambridge, UK.
When did you go to Alaska for the first time and how aware were you about the effect on permafrost due to climate change?
I think my first trip there was in 2005 or 2006. I had the good fortune to meet Dr Chien Lu Ping at the Soil Science Society of America national meetings. I asked him if I could possibly use some of the photos he showed in his presentation to teach my students about Gelisols.
He said yes, but even better, invited me to come to Alaska to get my own photos! I had always heard that Alaska was a majestic place, but words truly do not do it justice.
The grandeur and beauty of the untouched land are simply breath-taking.
Similarly, I had heard a lot of debate in the media about whether or not drilling for oil should be allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Working with Dr Ping, I had the chance to go to ANWR personally, and witness the wildlife, the wilderness, and the arctic soils.
Not long after that first trip, Dr Ping invited me to come up and work with him on a research project measuring coastal erosion rates along the Beaufort Sea.
It was on that trip that I really began to see the impacts of climate change first-hand. We measured erosion rates cutting back into the tundra at a rate of 5 meters per year, for hundreds of kilometres. In the years following, we found less and less ice in areas previously frozen solid. Those observations served to solidify my understanding of the impacts of climate change on arctic soils and ecosystems.
What was the main motivation that made up your mind about making this movie?
Dr Ping recently retired. I knew that once he retired, we as a profession, would lose a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience as it relates to arctic soils and ecosystems. Also, all of the students I had taken on the Arctic Soils Field Tour returned from the trip saying they would never look at the world the same way again.
In making this film, we wanted to both capture Dr Ping's perspective and experience, as well as document why arctic soils and ecosystems are so unique.
The clear connection to climate change brought a relevance and timeliness to the project that brings the issues into focus for everyone, not just scientists.
What were the biggest challenges in making this movie?
We were filming for weeks in remote parts of Alaska where there are no roads, no cell phone service, no electricity. We had to plan extensively for transportation (e.g., helicopter, chartered planes, etc.), access, and places to stay, and coordinate with interviewees.
While Paul Allen Hunton (Director) and his team are experts in documentary film-making, this was my first time to ever try something like this! I had to learn so much - everything from timelines to lingo. Now I can say that I will never look at films the same way again!
I know so much more about how to take a concept and bring it to life. In so many ways, Paul has been an amazing teacher and partner to make this film possible.
3) The weather
We really had to be prepared for anything. We shot scenes in everything from rainy/misty conditions to snow and freezing temperatures. Some days were sunny with blue sky and others were filled with dense fog. We worked to adjust indoor interviews with outdoor filming so as to capture the best weather we could. But, weather is something we definitely could not control!
You have worked in many different countries from China to India. What changes have you been noticing while looking at soils In different parts of the world?
A challenge I issue to all of my students and those I meet is to "touch the land lightly'. I'm not saying we can't farm the land, or develop it as needed for the benefit of society.
However, I think we are often careless in how we touch the land.
Too often, greed pushes people to make money quickly, often at the expense of the environment. There is a sentiment that if we ruin this piece of land, we can just move on to the next and exploit it. I've seen it - over and over again across the world. Some countries have regulations which seek to protect the environment; others don't.
To me, soil is one of the most critical natural resources we have in the world.
Gold, diamonds, oil, and coal are all important, but they can't grow the food needed to sustain life on this planet; only soil can. Much of the research I've conducted over my career has focused on new technologies for rapidly identifying pollution in soil environments.
I have been particularly drawn to applying such technological advances in developing parts of the world where access to instrumentation and data is often limited.
If you could change one thing (policy, education, media) in the world to fight against global warming, what would it be?
If I could change one thing in the world, it would be for people everywhere to have a deep, personal understanding of the issue whereby they would each be personally compelled to make choices that minimize the impact of people upon the planet.
Recycling, driving fuel efficient cars, demanding renewable energy sources (e.g., solar, wind), eliminating pollution, minimizing erosion, minimizing chemical use, etc. If we stopped politicizing these issues and, as a human race, came together to work a healthier, cleaner, more prosperous planet - we would all benefit.
Let not the dollar today drive us forward, but the prosperity of generations a century from now be our goal.