Hay Festival and the UK’s NERC (part of UK Research and Innovation) have released Glacier Shallap – Or the Sad Tale of a Dying Glacier, the latest film in from Trans.MISSION II, a global project pairing leading environmental researchers with award-winning storytellers to communicate cutting-edge science.
Written by and starring Peruvian writer and actress Erika Stockholm, the short film draws on the work of Cabot Institute’s Professor Jemma Wadham and her team of glaciology experts in the High Andes. (You can view the videos at the end of the blog.)
Professor Wadham, who worked with Erika Stockholm on the film, said she was surprised by her and Erika’s common ground:
“I’ve learnt that artists and scientists are both really story tellers at the end of the day, we just accomplish this in different ways,” she says.
“My own discovery that there are powerful ways I can communicate other than delivering scientific presentations. The way that the story Erika wrote evolved led to us producing a short play, with two narrators and a glacier (speaking about itself and its sad fate), entitled The Sad Tale of the Dying Glacier. It drew upon the science from a NERC/CONCYTEC funded project – CASCADA: Cascading impacts of Peruvian Glacier shrinkage on biogeochemical cycling and Acid Drainage in Aquatic ecosystems.”
First performed as a piece of theatre at a special event during Hay Festival Arequipa in November, the new film spotlights Peruvian glacial retreat and its impact on water security and resilience to natural hazards. In it, Erika Stockholm tracks the glacier’s rapid melting of the past 50 years, giving voice to the glacier itself as our warming world brings about its end. Glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru have lost an astonishing quarter of their area since the 1980s.
Jemma worked with Erika to create the narrative around Glacier Shallap since the project’s launch in May 2019.
“I wanted to see if it was possible for me to act the part of the glacier – which I did (in front of over 100 people!) It was my first time ever on stage, having to memorise words and all whilst moving – I didn’t believe I could do it. It was far from perfect, but it made me realise what is possible if you just decide to just give something a go.” Jemma explains.
Learning to act and to communicate with emotions, dance and movement felt “highly risky” to Jemma, as she was afraid of how people would react to a scientist working in this way.
“What’s been incredible is that the response I got from people who saw the play was far more dramatic than to any science talk I have given – many were quite emotional afterwards and were asking ‘what can we do?’ (about the current climate crisis). It’s made me realise that drawing on the hard scientific facts, but interpreting them in a way that moves people to take action is hugely powerful.”
Jemma hopes that the video will build awareness that glaciers are connected to almost everything we know – our water, oceans and atmosphere.
“What happens to them happens to us. Which future pathway we choose to follow in greenhouse emissions has dramatic consequences for the world’s glaciers, but it will also have serious consequences for many or us.”
“I’d love to do more science communication along the lines of Trans.MISSION. I’m actually also now writing my own book about glaciers in my spare time aimed at a general/popular audience. It aims to tell my own story, to explain how glaciers work, why they matter and why our own fate is inextricably bound to theirs. Watch this space!”
Trans.MISSION II follows 2018’s UK-only pilot, which saw three films released: Message from Antarctica by polar researcher Emily Shuckburgh and illustrator Chris Haughton, Clean Air Starts at Home by Aardman Animation Studios director Dan Binns and atmospheric chemist Professor Ally Lewis (voiced by Marcus Brigstocke), and the Weather Watching series by poet Nicola Davies and climate scientist Ed Hawkins. The three films can be seen on the Hay Festival website.
Professor Jemma Wadham conducted her first degree (B.A., M.A.) in Physical Geography at the University of Cambridge, UK. She subsequently pursued a PhD at the University of Bristol, undertaking at short post-doctoral research post at the University of Leeds in isotope geochemistry, before returning to Bristol to take up a tenured post at the Bristol Glaciology Centre. Previously Head of the Graduate School, Impact Director and Research Director in the School of Geographical Sciences, Jemma is based at the Cabot Institute for the Environment.