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NASA Filmmaker Debuts ‘Plight Of The Puffins’

July 18, 2008

What do puffins ““ colorful-billed birds looking like miniature penguins ““ have to do with the work we do at NASA?

That would be a good question to ask Maria Frostic, an earth science film producer at Goddard. Better yet, catch her documentary, “Plight of the Puffins,” on PBS next week to get the scoop.

On a Fulbright scholarship, Maria took leave from Goddard for July and August 2007 and traveled to the Westman Islands of Iceland to make a documentary on the shrinking population of puffins. Originally, she had planned to produce a film on medieval Icelandic sagas, but her plans changed after hearing the story of the Islands’ native bird.

Maria explained, “Upon my arrival in Iceland, I was introduced to a puffin biologist who had just launched a study to understand why Iceland’s Atlantic puffin population, which is the largest in the world, is threatened. I learned that the birds’ food source has shifted due to climate change, and I thought this would make an interesting film.”

While Maryland and Iceland may be geographically, geologically, and culturally different, Maria felt interconnections between her work in both places. As an Earth Science producer at NASA, all of her projects have involved climate change in some way.

For instance, she has recently done work as a producer for SeaWiFs on animations of ocean data. The purpose of the SeaWiFS mission is to examine oceanic factors that affect global change and to assess the oceans’ role in the global carbon cycle, as well as other biogeochemical cycles, through a comprehensive research program. One of the mission’s findings has been evidence that increased sea surface temperatures result in lower amounts of marine phytoplankton.

Maria believes that if phytoplankton is affected by the changing ocean ecosystems, the larger organisms that rely on it within the food chain may also feel an effect. This could explain why baby puffins are dying of starvation ““ their food source, a fish called the sandeel, is either dying off or moving to places where it can find its own food.

The people of the Westman Islands have strong ties to puffins as a part of their culture and express concern about the fate of the birds. Once an important food source for survival, they now treat the puffin more like a mascot, with various pictures and embroidery displaying the birds’ likeness all over town. On warm summer nights, daylight has been known to last until around midnight and local children are allowed to stay out late for an annual tradition.

Baby puffins, attracted by the light of the town and not yet able to fly, often glide down from their home on the cliffs and get stranded. The Icelandic children make a sport of catching the vulnerable baby puffins and taking them home for the evening, releasing them to the haven of the sea in the morning.

Fascinated by the people and their connection to the puffin, she did as the Icelandic people do. She pulled herself up the precarious cliff sides using the old ropes hung by the locals. There she filmed the puffin nesting grounds as unobtrusively as possible, valuing truth in her work.

“I strive to create films that are entertaining and informative but have scientific integrity,” said Maria. “It’s not always easy to balance each of these elements, but I work closely with the scientists I document to ensure that they are comfortable with how I portray them and their work.”

Maria expressed that she has found the audience for nature documentaries to be expanding. Because of successful programs like the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet, those looking to get the word out about climate change may have more of a platform to do so.

“Planet Earth was wildly popular and proved to the large networks that the public cares about the natural world and stories related to the natural sciences. There is also a large green movement happening around the globe, which coincides with a widened platform for making and distributing documentary film,” said Maria. “It is an exciting time to be involved with making science films.”

There may not be a more fitting person than Maria to make those films. Originally from Richmond, Maria received her Bachelor’s degree in Biology and English Literature from the University of Virginia. She earned her Master’s degree in Science and Natural History Film Making from University of Montana. Her resume reads like a career fair: newspaper reporter; teacher; park ranger; and researcher.

Finding science filmmaking allowed Maria to combine all of her interests and experience. Having always been drawn to nature and science, she is appreciative of the opportunity to close the gap between science and communicators. When the opportunity to do just at Goddard arose, she thought there would be no better place to tell stories than at NASA.

To hear her story on puffins, check your local listings for airtimes. A shortened version of the documentary will be featured on PBS’s “Wild Chronicles” during the week of July 20 ““ 26.

Image Caption: Goddard earth science producer Maria Frostic films the icy landscape of Iceland’s Westman Islands. Image courtesy Maria Frostic.

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