New documentary on the oceans and climate change

New documentary on the oceans and climate change

Imagine a world without fish. Sven Huseby, descendant of Norwegian fishermen and life-long environmentalist, had never done so until he read an article on ocean acidification. That article, “The Darkening Sea,” changed his life. He discovered that the effects of climate change are not limited to global warming: they extend to the sea, where the chemistry of the water is being changed and creating a profound threat to the food chain, starting at the bottom.

The next step? Huseby and his partner and wife, director Barbara Ettinger, decided to create a feature-length documentary about the issue. After two years in production, thousands of miles of travel, and hundreds of hours of editing, A Sea Change will be completed in December 2008. The odyssey begins with a meeting with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the New Yorker magazine article which catalyzed the film and ends with a series of meetings with the charismatic entrepreneurs whose daring innovations may help us turn the tide on changing ocean chemistry. The meat of the film is conversations with scientists whose research is in the forefront of the race to understand ocean acidification.

When we think about urgent threats to our environment, the images which come to mind are smokestacks and automobiles belching pollution into the sky, where it is causing global warming. But much of that pollution—which is excess carbon dioxide–doesn’t stay in the atmosphere. Much is absorbed by the oceans, where it becomes carbonic acid. At these abnormally elevated levels, carbonic acid changes seawater chemistry by lowering pH. That in turn decreases the available calcium carbonate essential for formation of bones in fish, shells on crustaceans and reef material from corals. For example, we are now seeing early signs of damage to pteropods, tiny creatures which are the essential food of juvenile salmon. The effects of the addition of carbon dioxide to the ocean ripples across many species, including human beings who rely on the sea for both sustenance and economic survival. Add to this growing problem the fact that we know relatively little about the oceans, compared to what we know about terrestrial ecosystems. We do know that the pH balance of the oceans has changed dramatically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: there is a 30% increase in acidification. With near unanimity, scientists now agree that the burning of fossil fuels is fundamentally reshaping ocean chemistry. Experts predict that over the next century, steady increases in carbon dioxide emissions and the continued rise in the acidity of the oceans will cause most of the world’s fisheries to experience a total bottom-up collapse–a state that could last for millions of years.

Huseby is the means by which the audience encounters the problem of ocean acidification, starts to understand the issue and its possible solutions. He travels from the Northeast to the Northwest United States to Norway and California on his journey to understand. Driving his voyage is his concern for his five-year-old grandson Elias and what environment legacy he will inherit.

The tone of the film is unavoidably dark at times. Asked if we are “screwed,” Dr. Edward Miles from the University of Washington says, “Yes, to a considerable extent.” Kolbert herself mourns that she is leaving her son a degraded world. Yet there is hope, and Huseby, the documentary’s protagonist, finds it where he can, among the scientists and entrepreneurs and in his moments with Elias.

Says Rob Moir, Executive Director of the Ocean River Institute: “A Sea Change could not be more timely. I believe acidification of our oceans is actually a greater threat to our survival than is temperature or sea level rise, the conventional “global warming” threats. Acidification is confusing and difficult to even imagine for most people–we need your film. To imagine a world without fish we must first imagine an ocean devoid of life. As someone who as watched whales for more than three decades that is incomprehensible. Yet it will happen if we do not first comprehend and then take steps to turn the trends.” Moir was formerly Curator of Education at the New England Aquarium. He was awarded a Switzer Environmental Fellowship from the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation, and the James Centorino Award for Distinguished Performance in Marine Education by the National Marine Educators Association, which he also served as president.

Interviewees include: Dr. Richard Feely, NOAA and University of Washington; Dr. Edward Miles, University of Washington; Dr. Jeff Short, NOAA Juneau, AK; Dr. Ricki Ott, Cordova, AK; Dr. Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institute of Global Ecology, Stanford University; Dr. Richard Bellerby, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway; Dr. Victoria Fabry, California State College, San Marcos, CA; Dr. Jan-Gunnar Winther, Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsoe, Norway; Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker writer on environmental matters; Miyoko Sakashita, environmental lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, San Francisco, CA; Deborah Williams, President, Alaska Conservation Solutions and former Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior; Andrew Beebe, President, Energy Innovations; Borea Schau-Larsen. hotelier and owner of Solstrand Hotel in Os, Norway; Maya Lin, artist and architect.

Director Ettinger’s first film Martha and Ethel screened at the Sundance Film Festival and was distributed theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics. Her most recent film, Two Square Miles, was co-produced with Huseby through their company Niijii Films, and aired nationally on PBS’s Independent Lens in November 2006 and again in January 2007.

Award-winning cinematographer Claudia Raschke-Robinson is also shooting the film. She is known for her work as DP on the feature documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, directed by Marilyn Agrelo. She has filmed several documentary features nearing commercial release, including Shoot Down and Frame of Mind. Raschke-Robinson has also received acclaim for her cinematography on fiction feature films, including The Last Good Time directed by Bob Balaban, starring Armin Muehler-Stahl and Olivia D’Abo, and No Way Home, directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, starring Tim Roth, Debora Unger, and James Russo.

The film’s editor is Toby Shimin. Shimin has cut numerous films that have premiered at Sundance, including A Leap of Faith, Martha and Ethel, Everything’s Cool, and Out of the Past, which won an Audience Award. She has cut several projects for PBS, including AIDS Warriors for the 2003 season of Wide Angle and two projects for American Experience: Miss America, which premiered at Sundance in 2002; and Seabiscuit, for which she was nominated a 2003 Emmy. Shimin is a principal of Dovetail Films, a production and editing company she co-founded with Dina Guttmann in 2001. She studied film at Hampshire College, where she earned a Bachelors of Arts.

Co-producing the project is Susan Cohn Rockefeller. She has directed, produced and written three documentaries. Green Fire: Lives of Commitment and Passion in a Fragile World and Richard Nelson’s Alaska have an environmental focus and were aired on PBS affiliates. Her third film, Running Madness, was also produced with an eye to the balance between man and nature: it won multiple awards, including the prestigious platinum Aurora award. She is a board member of the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

Niijii Films raised more than $650,000 to produce the documentary. Key to the fundraising efforts was Sailors for the Sea, the movie’s fiscal sponsor. SfS is a non-profit organization founded by David Rockefeller, Jr., that educates and empowers the boating community to protect and restore our oceans and coastal waters.

For more information please call the Niijii Outreach Office at +1 718 407 0670, or email

Angela Alston, The Earth Times, 10 November 2008. Article.

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