Between Earth, Sky and Texas Tech

David Weindorf, Ph.D., knew when Chien-Lu Ping retired from academics his knowledge of arctic soils would be leaving with him. Weindorf, a plant and soil science professor at Texas Tech, wanted there to be a way to continue to share Ping’s knowledge with the world. He knew, if successful, he would be saving knowledge for future generations. What Weindorf did not anticipate was that it would culminate into a documentary produced by Texas Tech Public Media, Between Earth and Sky.

About 10 years ago, Weindorf began taking students on an arctic soils field tour, which is a course offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The course is taught by a man named Dr. Chien-Lu Ping,” Weindorf said, “and he is considered one of the preeminent arctic soil scientist in the world.”

Weindorf said eventually he became so familiar with the course he was made a co-instructor.

“The students that go on this course, every one of them, will tell you that when they come back from this course they never looked at the world the same way again,” Weindorf said.

After seven years, Ping and Weindorf continued to teach the field course on arctic soils. However, Ping, who is in his late 70s, eventually expressed his desire to retire.

“Gosh,” said Weindorf, recalling his feeling at the time, “When he leaves, that is going to be such a tremendous amount of knowledge that walks out the door.”

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Chien-Lu Ping with students on soils field tour. Photo Courtesy of Texas Tech Public Media

Concept Development

Weindorf began planning to document Ping’s last arctic soils field tour.  He said he wanted to develop a way to archive Ping’s knowledge of arctic soils for future generations.

He took his idea to the Soil Science Society of America who then appointed Weindorf as chairman of a task force devoted to the idea of documenting arctic soils.

How do we get people to care about soil science in Alaska? David Weindorf

“We started wrestling with this idea of: How do we get people to care about soil science in Alaska?” Weindorf said.

According to Weindorf, arctic soils have large amounts of organic matter resting on top of them. These soils are known as permafrost, which are soils that remain frozen, below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least two consecutive years. As permafrost begins to thaw there is increased microbial activity as the previously frozen organic matter begins to decompose.

Weindorf said that as the organic matter decomposes more carbon is released into the atmosphere.

“As long as that permafrost stays frozen,” Weindorf said, “any methane or organic deposits that are there are locked away. When things start to melt, that’s when all those gases start to be liberated.”

Weindorf said that was when the task force began to realize why people should care about arctic soils.

“We said, ‘Boy, if we made a film where we talk about the arctic soils field tour, soil science, and carbon sequestration and how all of that links to global climate change, that is a really strong pyramid to build upon’,” Weindorf said. “That’s kind of how we arrived at the idea for the film.”

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Interpolygon ice wedge in melting permafrost. Photo Courtesy of Texas Tech Public Media

Teaming with Texas Tech Public Media

Eventually, Weindorf contacted with Paul Hunton, the new station manager for KTTZ-TV, Texas Tech Public Media and two-time Emmy award winning director for his work with non-fiction films.  The two began working on the documentary Texas Tech Public Media would film, direct, and edit, Between Earth and Sky.

Weindorf said when shooting in Alaska two very unique angles began to present themselves: the angle of the scientist, which he said can sometimes be dull, and the angle of the laymen.

“We came up with this idea of presenting the science,” Weindorf said, “but also getting just the native Alaskan perspective.”

Jonathan Seaborn, from Texas Tech Public Media and co-director of Between Earth and Sky, said there were many personal stories from filming that stuck with him.

“Some of the more compelling stuff to me was talking to farmers or just random people that were telling us their experiences,” Seaborn said, “about how there was this glacier they used to go to as a kid. Maybe four miles off some highway. Now, it’s some 15 years later and that glacier is maybe 50 miles.”

Weindorf said while the film focuses on some of the negative aspects of climate change, they tried to take a balanced approach to the issue.

“Admittedly, there are going to be some positives to climate change,” Weindorf said. “As temperatures warm farther to the north there are going to be areas of Alaska that are now brought into agricultural production.”

Weindorf said it is necessary to view the whole cycle and that oil, which is extracted along the northern slope and commonly cited as one of the leading causes of climate change, is one of the driving factors of Alaska’s economy.

Filming

Seaborn, co-director of the film, said it was a much larger undertaking than anything he had done before. The long days of an Alaskan summer gave the crew lots of daylight hours to film, and the challenges they faced while filming in the Alaskan frontier added to the entire experience and film.

“It was almost a full month of just non-stop interviews or being out hiking up the mountain filming or out in the wilderness,” Seaborn said. “Everything was wet all the time, and there were crazy bugs everywhere, and the wildlife, and so there were just these extra little elements you have to overcome.”

According to Weindorf and Seaborn, Between Earth and Sky is the first documentary of its kind to look at the effects of climate change as it relates to soils. Between Earth and Sky will be showing at film festivals and specialty theaters throughout 2017.

“What makes it a little different than another climate change documentary,” Seaborn said, “is the fact that we talk about the effects of melting sea ice and these other things that are mentioned in every climate change documentary. But the main focus of the film, as far as the scientific part, is what’s happening in the ground because of climate change that’s also affecting it and intensifying it.”