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Under the hood of 'Earth: The Operators’ Manual'

Notes and anecdotes from a climate change documentarian

September 18, 2012 | What do chamber pots and bungee jumping have to do with climate change? A lively crowd of about 75 NCAR & UCAR staff and guests found out on Friday, September 14, as filmmaker Geoffrey Haines-Stiles took them on a behind-the-scenes look at the PBS documentary Earth: The Operators’ Manual.

Geoffrey Haines-Stiles gestures at NCAR talk
Geoffrey Haines-Stiles. (Photos by Carlye Calvin unless otherwise noted.)

Hosted by eminent climate scientist Richard Alley (Pennsylvania State University), the three-part, NSF-funded series puts Earth’s climate challenge into a practical, optimistic framework.

Given the high profile of climate change in general, it’s noteworthy how little the subject is covered at length on TV, noted Haines-Stiles. With tongue only slightly in cheek, he outlined some of the most frequent subjects for science documentaries:

  • Big eyes and fur
  • Crocodiles and dinosaurs
  • Existential questions
  • Sex and reproduction
  • Submarines
  • Blowing things up
  • Sharks


Globetrotting strategy

To help make climate change accessible and interesting, Alley takes viewers to the glacier outlets and geothermal parks of New Zealand, canoes through a U.S. wetland, and explains paleoclimate at the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver. The series also depicts how many sectors of society, including the U.S. military, are working to reduce their carbon footprint. It employs vivid metaphors, including Scotland’s 19th-century transition from chamber pots to plumbing, as an example of how society can successfully and affordably address the inevitable waste products of civilization.

Richard Alley sitting on rocks by the sea
Richard Alley (Pennsylvania State University) hosted Earth: The Operators' Manual from a variety of points around the globe. (Photo courtesy Geoffrey Haines-Stiles.)

Haines-Stiles showed the ML audience several outtakes from the series to illustrate how length, tone of voice, and other considerations play into the crafting of a science telecast. In one case, an extended discussion of abrupt climate change was condensed with the help of a cartoon version of Alley. The avatar rides a roller coaster, denoting the regular ups and downs of climate from one ice age to another—and then bungee-jumps from the coaster to convey the Younger Dryas period and its rapid temperature drop.

The afternoon’s discussion ranged from how best to simplify climate science for TV to how best to distribute the series. Many segments are available for viewing online via the program’s website and Facebook page.

“What an honor it was to have a gifted and experienced science communicator like Geoff here at NCAR,” says Matt Hirschland (Communications), who organized the Haines-Stiles visit. “The story he tells in Earth: The Operators’ Manual is our story, and done in such an elegant and accessible way that we want it to be widely heard and seen.”

Geoffrey Haines-Stiles addresses the NCAR crowd.
The NCAR crowd gets the back story from Haines-Stiles.