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Plight of the Puffins
07.17.08
 
Maria Frostic films the iceberg lagoon. Maria Frostic films the Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon in Iceland. Credit: Mary Tucker
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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, Maria recently produced new science data visualizations from the Sea-viewing Wide Field of view Sensor (SeaWiFS), a unique instrument that observes global levels of phytoplankton. SeaWiFS gathers data on ocean color from space, which enables researchers to understand 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.

Most marine life depends on phytoplankton, including the fish that sustain Iceland’s Atlantic puffin population. In the past year, researchers linked the disappearnce of the birds’ missing food source to Earth’s changing climate. Some baby puffins, known as pufflings, are dying of starvation -- their food source, a fish called the sandeel, is now scarce where it used to be abundant.

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, the puffin is now a revered mascot, and images of the birds grace signs, buildings, and busses throughout the town of Heimaey.

In late summer, baby puffins must make their first flight to sea. The baby birds are often drawn to the town’s lights, and wind up stranded and disoriented. The children of Heimaey have an annual tradition of catching the vulnerable pufflings and releasing them at the water’s edge. Island adults recall rescuing the birds in droves; in the last three years, puffin reproduction has plummeted, and far fewer birds are venturing out toward sea.

Fascinated by the people and their connection to the puffin, Maria 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 believes that audiences enjoy nature documentaries. The recent unexpected success of the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth is a big indicator of the kind of programming the general public want to view.

“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, Virginia, Maria received Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in Science and Natural History Filmmaking from Montana State University in Bozeman. She has worked as a newspaper reporter; teacher; park ranger; and marine science 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 that arose at Goddard, she thought there would be no better place to communicate science 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.
 
 
Kelsey Paquin
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center