PBS documentary talks climate change from perspective of Alaskan Natives

Ph.D soil sciences student Barret Wessel presents Dr. David Weindorf an honorary induction into Phi Kappa Phi, one of the sponsors of this screening, along with the Department of  Environmental Science and Technology and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.

By Greta Easthom

Embedded beneath the Alaskan arctic soil is the story of climate change that Dr. David Weindorf set out to tell in his PBS documentary, “Between Earth and Sky,” which screened at Hoff Theater in Stamp on Feb. 23 at 5 p.m.

Weindorf  is the documentary’s executive producer and the associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University.

“We have to highlight the importance of soil science,” Weindorf said. “Our greatest carbon sink is vegetation.”

The documentary, directed by Emmy-award winning Paul Allen Hunton, chronicles Weindorf’s partnership with Dr. Chien Lu Ping, professor of soil sciences at University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The two brought students from their respective universities there to study the area’s permafrost and soil profiles.

“My students have always come back and said, ‘I’ll never look at the world the same way again,’ Weindorf said.

Permafrost is soil that has not melted for at least two years. According to the documentary, close to 40 percent of Earth’s sequestered carbon is trapped underneath this frost.

Over the last several decades, Alaska’s temperature has increased by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This has led to a glacier retreat of two miles in the last 20 years, and melting permafrost has subsequently released copious amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.  As these greenhouse gases are released, more heat is trapped, causing warmer temperatures that melt further permafrost, leading to what is known in the scientific community as a positive feedback loop.

“We’re [now] recognizing the role of climate change more at a local scale and in individual events,” Texas Tech University professor Dr. Katharine Hayhoe said in the documentary. “We’ve known that the Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet since the 1890s.”

Shishmaref, Alaska — an area home to the Intuit people — has been experiencing coastal erosion and retreating sea ice because of climate change, leaving them in “third world country conditions,” according to one native in the documentary.

In August 2016, Shishmaref’s residents voted 89-78 to leave thearea. But according to Weindorf, there are no government-sponsored funds to complete this transition. The documentary ended in a resounding chorus from the scientists, to the soil surveyors, to the native Alaskan people, that the government needed to do more.

Weindorf said that with the United States as a world leader, withdrawing from the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference “sent a huge signal to the world.”

“We as Americans…are the ones who are supposed to be leading,” Weindorf said. “We have some of the best scientists in the world. We have some of those amazing scientists right here on this campus. The science that we generate, documenting some of the changes on the planet — we cannot ignore it.”

Weindorf commended the students in the audience for being engaged in these issues.

Sophomore bioengineering major Lily Ha said she enjoyed hearing Weindorf’s story.

“We need to be educated and learn new information on [sustainability] every day, especially in this field,” Ha said. “It’s very pertinent to our life.”

Weindorf said that by framing climate change from the point of view of the Native Alaskans, he documentary tried to convey that you don’t have to be a scientist to feel a connection to conserving natural resources.

“These narratives are lining up with the science,” Weindorf said.


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