Interview with “Glacial Balance” Filmmaker Ethan Steinman

Interview with “Glacial Balance” Filmmaker Ethan Steinman

Part science documentary, part humanitarian expose´ and part adventure flick, “Glacial Balance” profiles the work of ice core expert Dr. Lonnie Thompson and the plight of local people who are dependent on the Andean glaciers.

Movie Image
Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson atop Hualcán Glacier, Peru
Movie Image
Pastoruri Glacier's visible decline over the past decade
Movie Image
Scaling a glacier on the Antisana Volcano, Ecuador. Photo courtesy Bernard Francou
Movie Image
Inside the Hualcán drill tent. Left to right: Ryan Vachon, Paolo Gabrielli, Americo Serrano, Lonnie G. Thompson, Roberto Filippi
Movie Image
Porters carrying ice cores down from Hualcán, later to be transported to freezer trucks
“Naturally, scientists are the key to understanding this and finding those whose goal is information retrieval and making that information accessible to laypeople such as myself is my own way of trying to make their work more accessible, and meaningful, to the general public.”

- Ethan Steinman

Movie Image
Filmmaker Ethan Steinman films a small avalanche from base camp on the way up to the Hualcán Glacier

Filmmaker Ethan Steinman set out to make a documentary about the people living in the Andes who depend on the mountain glaciers for their water supply, and how threats to those glaciers from mining and climate change are impacting their lives. In the process, he met researchers in the field whose work on ice cores opened a whole new world of understanding, expanding the scope of his film. “Glacial Balance” tells the oral history of a people and culture under siege and the story of scientists dedicated to preserving a history of the Earth that only the ice can tell.

The film takes its viewers on a journey along the Andes Mountains to the Hualcán Glacier in Huascaran National Park, Huarez, Peru. On the Hualcán Glacier, Paleoclimatologist Lonnie G. Thompson, an expert on ice cores and a distinguished professor at Ohio State University, and a Picarro customer, along with a dedicated team of fellow researchers, is taking ice core samples to measure the effects of climate change and create an archive of core samples for future generations.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Mr. Steinman to discuss his inspiration for making this film and how it evolved.

Be sure to visit the Glacial Balance website to learn more about the film and view the riveting footage of Dr. Thompson and his team in the field. If you are interested in supporting this film’s production and finishing costs (music licensing, final sound mix, design, and color correction) before its public release, please send an email to [email protected].

Kristen Stanton (KS): Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Ethan. Let’s start with how the idea for “Glacial Balance” originated.

Ethan Steinman (ES): I was living in Argentina when the country was on the verge of passing a historic glacier protection law back in 2009. There were political issues with the law that ended up delaying it. The ongoing debate was about a gold mine in the Andes, between the Chilean/Argentine border, that could potentially have negative impacts on glaciers above the mine. A story I read (later confirmed by an Argentine glaciologist) talked about a mining company’s suggestion on how to avoid a negative impact on three glaciers in the area. The idea was to airlift the glaciers and put them on another mountain! Even to my extremely limited knowledge of glaciers at the time, this idea sounded unfeasible at best, but I was intrigued by the subject of glaciers, and realized my own lack of knowledge of them at the time. As my interest in glaciers grew, so did the scope of the film.

KS: Airlifting the glaciers to another location, eh? That sounds like a bad idea whose time should never come! So it was this process of educating yourself that led you to the work of these scientists?

ES: My initial idea for the film was to focus on the stories of the people along the Andes who depend on the melt water from these glaciers. To me, climate change was always a general term, never really having a human connection. Naturally, for knowledge about what was happening to their water supplies I turned to studies done by the scientists who have dedicated their lives to the analysis of these ice deposits. As we began filming, I saw how intertwined the scientists’ stories became with the locals as they carried out their research, and it seemed only natural to me that in the film, the scientists’ story should be interwoven with the stories of the Andean citizens.

KS: How did learning about the science affect your perceptions about climate change?

ES: I have learned so much about climate change that I hadn’t understood before the production, but I’ve found that (for a layman) learning about the process of analysis and how these scientists look at the samples they pull from the glaciers, I am better equipped to explain to deniers and even climate change activists the basic mechanics of how precise the science is that goes into studying our planet’s history, which is literally entombed in the ice. In addition, the great wealth of information that is (for now) sitting within the ice made me realize how essential prompt scientific funding is – so these glaciers can be studied sooner, rather than later - or never, as they melt away.

KS: In the film, Dr. Thompson talks about the impacts that the people living in the region will experience as these glaciers disappear, as well as the repercussions to the larger global population. He mentions that 76% of Peru’s power comes from hydro-electricity, powered by these glaciers, which creates a negative feedback loop – the glaciers melt, so Peruvians lose their ability to generate hydro-electric power, thus depending more on fuel burning, which increases global warming, and so on.

ES: Unfortunately it’s true. The film began on a much smaller scope with my own exploration into the importance of glaciers. As I learned more, the focus of the film became broader as I learned just how interconnected the world is, and what the repercussions may be as a result of climate change. For example, the IPCC’s projections suggest that by the 2020s, between 7 and 77 million people in Latin America alone will experience water-stress. This means forced migration from rural areas with no water supplies into larger cities. Right now, cities like La Paz and El Alto in Bolivia are facing the stress of this as their existing water supply isn’t enough to sustain the base population, much less the influx of climate refugees. So more strain is put on the already fragile system, which has the potential for even further migration from even more densely populated areas. So at what point will this trend stop?

KS: This is what it is critical for people to understand – that scientists studying these simple molecules in the ice are telling us how, on a humanitarian level, our world will change. The footage in “Glacial Balance” is incredibly dramatic because of the location. What were some of your biggest challenges in making the film?

ES: Temperature wasn’t that big a factor as I’m from the Midwestern U.S. and somewhat used to cold weather. For example, on top of Hualcán, I think the temperatures only got down to about 13°C (8°F) at night and were hovering right around freezing during the day. Without a doubt, the biggest factor was elevation. I’m not a mountain climber by any stretch of the imagination and Hualcán was my first ascent. As I was initially in touch with Lonnie (Thompson) while he and his team were between climbs, I was in a rush to get there before they finished their drilling, so the time I went from sea level up to 5,400 meters above sea level (masl) - approximately ~17,700 feet above sea level (fasl) - was around four or five days. Going from sea level up to the altitude of Huaraz (3,050 masl / 10,000 fasl) was strenuous in and of itself. Acclimatization and some practice trekking along with Lonnie’s long-time guide, Felix Vicencio, helped the transition quite a bit. But a couple days later, when we made our two-day trek from Huaraz up to the top of Hualcán, I could never have imagined the strain the increasing altitude could have on every aspect of my mind and body. You get to a point where every movement, every decision has to be methodically planned out as the simplest tasks are exhausting.

KS: That is definitely a lot to put your body through in a short amount of time. A fourteener (14,000 fasl peak) is a source of bragging rights for climbers, so working at nearly 18,000 ft. is inconceivable for most mortals. This really underscores the dedication and effort put forth by these scientists in doing this kind of work. I liken it to journalists working in a war zone – without scientists like Dr. Thompson and his team, and filmmakers like you, who are taking risks to tell us the true story and give us real data, we would otherwise be totally ignorant about what’s actually going on. What were the most rewarding aspects of making “Glacial Balance” for you?

ES: For me, I always find it most rewarding when I travel to a small village and have the opportunity to document the way of living, of thinking, learning the history of another culture and understanding who they are as people. I feel a sense of joy coming from many of those I talk to simply by visiting them, showing genuine interest in their lives, their thoughts, and their opinions. They express their appreciation for giving them the opportunity to speak to the world and show their way of life, telling the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s rewarding to hear them express their thoughts on what is happening to the world around them.

KS: What would you ideally like to see this film accomplish?

ES: Ideally, I would love for the film to be used as a tool to show climate change deniers the brass tacks of how comprehensive the scientific study method is and, at the same time, use the emotional stories of the Andean population as a way of humanizing the effects that climate change is already having in the world around us. I’m a pessimist, so naturally I don’t expect hardcore deniers to necessarily accept these facts as proof. However, if “Glacial Balance” is able to serve as a tool to scientists, schools, and others to provide a better understanding of glaciers and their importance in our lives, I’ll feel the film has been a success. In addition, knowing that I have been able to help give a voice to communities otherwise hidden from the world stage, I’ll be pleased; all the while giving the public a glimpse into some hard-to-access regions of our planet.

KS: What are your next projects and do you plan to continue profiling scientists like this in the field?

ES: As I’m finishing editing “Glacial Balance”, I’m gearing up to begin filming what I’m tentatively calling “Induction”, which will be a look into the world of electromagnetics. In it, we’ll be trying to understand how geomagnetic forces play a role in our lives and what, if any, effects manmade electromagnetics are having on our day-to-day existence (for better and/or worse.) Kind of an investigation into the EM debate, dispelling myths and looking at what the scientific data are telling us.

I don’t have a background in science, but my films always tend to lean towards the scientific and/or anthropologic realm. I really go with my gut, what subjects interest me and can hold my interest for the two or three years that the whole production process entails. I feel like I’m using my camera as a means to understand myself as an individual, my place in the world, some of the underlying motivations and aspirations of modern-day man, and trying to learn what is happening on a larger scale in the world around me. Naturally, scientists are the key to understanding this and finding those whose goal is information retrieval and making that information accessible to laypeople such as myself is my own way of trying to make their work more accessible and meaningful to the general public.

Please visit GlacialBalance.com to learn more.