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Filming the "Plight of the Puffins"

Puffins: the flighted, more stylish-looking cousins of the penguin. To the island nation of Iceland, they are as culturally significant as blue crabs are to Maryland. Now a Fulbright-funded documentary film made by Maria Frostic of UMBC's Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology (GEST) Center, to be broadcast nationally by PBS on July 23, may help spotlight how climate change could impact the unique birdsí future.

Shot on location in Iceland's Westman Islands, a shorter version of Frostic's 13-minute documentary "Plight of the Puffins" will air on PBS's "Wild Chronicles" series on July 23. The full film will routinely screen at the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Maine, and will be submitted to several science and wildlife-themed film festivals.

Originally from Richmond, Va., Frostic arrived at the GEST Center last year after receiving a master's degree in natural history filmmaking from Montana State University. An earth science film producer at GEST, Frostic makes short, research-oriented videos for the Web. It's another extension of her many interests and unusual career path.

An avid outdoorswoman, she did her undergraduate studies in biology, English language and literature, and environmental science at the University of Virginia. A two-time alumna of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Frostic spent a semester backpacking the Grand Canyon, winter camping in Yellowstone, caving in Big Horn National Forest and later joined a NOLS sea kayaking expedition in Baja, Mexico.

Her experience with NOLS sparked a lifelong interest in biology and ecology. Frostic has also worked as a teacher, park ranger, newspaper reporter and researcher.

"I look back at my career and it all makes perfect sense, even though it seemed disjointed at the time," said Frostic. "I always had a foot in both the arts and the sciences, and when I found science filmmaking, it enabled me to combine my many interests: research, writing, travel and ultimately communicating science in a creative way."

In July 2007, Frostic loaded up her high-def film equipment and journeyed to Iceland, known for its otherworldly landscapes and harsh winters. Icelanders have a close historical and cultural tie to puffins. Long ago, smoked puffin was relied upon as a winter survival staple. But today puffins are more like the Icelandic official mascot, their images displayed on street signs, murals, shot glasses and sweaters.

Frostic's film shoot coincided with the launch of a research study by noted Icelandic biologist Erpur Hansen on how climate change may be impacting the puffinís food source. Puffins rely on a tiny fish known as the sand eel or sand lance, and the abundance of this fish in Icelandic seas have made the Westman Islands the largest breeding ground for Atlantic puffins in the world.

In recent years the fish have became scarce, and puffin reproduction is plummeting. "Islanders have seen puffin parents try to feed their young (known as pufflings) with larger fish like herring, but they were too large for the juveniles to swallow. Many pufflings have starved to death," said Frostic.

A recent analysis of the 2007 field data revealed that climate change is being felt in many global ocean ecosystems. "Some of the effects are obvious, and others are more complex and harder to understand," Frostic said. "What I'm gathering is that every part of the marine ecosystem is affected, starting with phytoplankton and working through the food chain to larger organisms."

Frostic hopes that "Plight of the Puffins" will hold equal appeal to environmental activists and film lovers. She's submitting her work to several film festivals while exploring potential tie-ins with Barbara's Bakery, Inc. -- which donates a percentage of profits from its Puffins brand cereal to conservation groups and other charities -- and the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin. She also is interested in teaching a course on science filmmaking at UMBC.

"This project has been like a dream come true," Frostic said. "Film is a powerful tool for heightening awareness on issues like this, and for inspiring viewers to take action to protect their home planet."

5/12/08