Climatescience.tv Website: Scientists in the Field

A new Web-based service seeks to convey images of scientists in the field … in effect, the making of climate science so seldom seen by those not personally involved in the effort.

Climate scientists routinely travel to distant and remote sites around the world to do their research: to mountaintops, to the deep ocean, and to the North and South Poles. Their research results often show up in peer-reviewed scientific journals not easily accessible to those outside their specialty fields … and certainly not in easily digestible doses the broad public can use.

A new website, climatescience.tv, launched in May, hopes to change that by giving viewers footage of climate scientists at work in the field, conducting their research in places far-removed from their homes and from the inquisitive eye of a reporter’s camera. Videos at the site offer behind-the-scenes footage of scientists retrieving deep-sea sediment cores, sampling greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, testing how acidic seawater affects urchin larvae, and more.

The project is also making rare historical footage widely available to the public. In May, for instance, the site posted a video of a 1980 speech by Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Roger Revelle, provided to the project by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Project leader Joshua Wolfe, a photographer and filmmaker, is the co-author, with NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt, of Climate Change: Picturing the Science. Wolfe is also a partner at a New York and Washington, D.C.-based communications firm called the PES Group, which is supporting climatescience.tv.

The Yale Forum spoke with Wolfe about why it’s important to show how scientists do their work and why he’s not trying to persuade people to care about global warming. A lightly edited version of the exchange follows:

Photographer/filmmaker Joshua White hopes to provide insights into the actual work of climate science in the field.

The Yale Forum: How did you get the idea for climatescience.tv?

Joshua Wolfe: For the last two-and-a-half years or so, I’ve been working on a full-length documentary on the history of climate science. I kept finding these tapes or film reels from the 1970s and ’80s of a lot of the greats of climate science. And then that was coupled with a project where we’re sending cameras with scientists as they go into the field. And so we started to generate just an amazing amount of content, and we thought this would be a great place to make it publicly available.

The Yale Forum: What do you hope to achieve through the site?

Wolfe: We’d like to have one coherent resource for film and videos that relate to climate science, and not necessarily the advocacy films or the basic education films, but for the more in-depth films, for the ones that are of use to someone teaching an “Intro to Climate” class or to a slightly more informed audience.

There doesn’t exist right now a good visual archive of the history of climate science. Some of what we’re trying to do is to make sure that we get our hands on a lot of this stuff before it deteriorates or before it disappears, and put it in one central location. I can’t tell you how many film reels I end up with that have a one- or two-word description on the outside of the canister that no one’s looked at in 25 years.

The Yale Forum: So how are you finding this material?

Wolfe: As I was working on this history of climate science documentary, I would ask everyone, “Hey, do you have any films or videos?” And all of the sudden people would start pulling boxes out of their basements. There hasn’t been a real push to try and save these things yet.

There’s a long history in science of not saving the film and video. The [most] famous one is the film that was shot of Apollo 11 and then disappeared. All the footage you see of that first moonwalk was beamed back to Earth. But there was this great film that was shot on the moon; and from what everyone can tell, it is most likely that someone decided, “Hey, this is magnetic tape. Let me use it for data,” and just, you know, went over the moon footage.

The Yale Forum: What kind of difference do you think it makes to show people how scientists are doing their work as opposed to just telling them the results?

Wolfe: There’s a value in being able to show people, here’s how scientists do their work.

There’s a more basic problem that we hope to solve, which is that there isn’t always a great understanding across fields within climate science. Climate science is a very diverse, very complicated field, and so when you’re doing an “Intro to Climate Science” course at a university, the person teaching the course might be a climate modeler, and paleoclimate just isn’t their specialty.

So if we have a great film of ice cores being taken, they can relate to that a little bit better, but also help their students relate to it. It’s one thing to read a paper about ice cores or sediment cores, but it’s another thing to really see how they come out of the ground.

The focus within the film community has been, “Let’s get people to pay attention to global warming.” I’ve found it very liberating to not worry about that, to say, “Most of my audience has always been the people who are paying attention and want more depth.” And I’ll serve that audience very well.

One of the other things that gets lost, when you’re trying to convince people that they should pay attention to this is how much fun it is.

We’re going to put up a video from Ice Station Alpha, which was the first drifting ice camp in the Arctic that [polar geophysicist] Norbert Untersteiner put together. And there’s this scene in it where a nuclear sub comes up through the ice and basically leaves a patch of water next to their drifting ice station. They’ve been stuck on ice two or three months at that point, and they feel they must do something with this water. So they strap Norbert to a plank of plywood and drag him around on a boat in the water. And Norbert’s not a particularly good swimmer, and the water’s freezing, but they seemed to think this was a good idea, and it was captured on film. And it captures that spirit of adventure that is part of climate science [Editor's note: Watch the scene starting at minute 26 of this video.]

The Yale Forum: How are you marketing your site, and what’s your traffic like?

Wolfe: We’re not doing an aggressive campaign. We weren’t planning for as big an audience as we’ve had. I think our average video’s getting somewhere between 500 and 1,000 downloads.

We don’t have any funding for the site at the moment. So right now, this is really just something we’re doing for fun, and we’re kind of passing it around to our friends, and we’re really quite honored that they’re passing it around to their friends.

Our goal for the moment is to test it out and see what people like. Once we get a handle on that, the idea will then be to build a more robust site, and to figure out what features are of value, especially to teachers and academics.

The Yale Forum: If scientists wanted their work to be showcased on your site, or if they had useful videos in their basements, how could they go about sharing that with you or getting some cameras to go out on their own expeditions?

Wolfe: Send us an e-mail at info@climatescience.tv.

The Yale Forum: What is the schedule for release of the documentary you mentioned?

Wolfe: That’s a really good question. I have no answer for that. Our goal is to finish it by the end of the summer, but you know, as with any film, book, etc. project where two-plus years have gone into it, it never actually finishes on time. But we’re getting there. About half of it is edited so far.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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