Students explore local coastal issues for climate change documentary

by Michelle Saxton
Thursday, September 22, 2011

Staff photo by Benton Sampson

The "We Sea Change" documentary team from left, Jessica Lama, Dustin Chamber, Keela Sweeney, Evan Lucas and Megan Ennes.

Salt water intrusion, barrier island migration and loss of longleaf pine forest are important issues for coastal southeastern North Carolina, and they are topics of a new documentary several high school students have created that looks at climate change.

The premiere of "We Sea Change: A Students’ Perspective on Climate and a Changing World" is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

"People look at global climate change and they say, ‘It’s too big,’" Megan Ennes, education program specialist at the aquarium, said Saturday, Sept. 17. "But a lot of these issues – there are regional components. We can make a big difference in our little section of the world that will make all of our livelihoods better and help to take care of our planet."

Ennes started working on the film last year with four students from Isaac Bear Early College High School in Wilmington. The group, called the Cape Fear Beach Bears, captured footage during field trips to the Cape Fear River, Bald Head Island, Holly Shelter and the aquarium and interviewed local scientists and business owners.

Ennes, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, met with Isaac Bear students Dustin Chambers, Jessica Lama, Evan Lucas and Keela Sweeney at the university Sept. 17 to view the film and discuss final details.

Exploring the different sites was a significant part of the process for Chambers.

"I knew what climate change was, and I had some background and some knowledge on it," Chambers said. "But going out there and seeing it for yourself, you really have a better understanding."

Lucas said his "aha moment" occurred when the students visited Bald Head Island and learned there are animal species in the maritime forest ecosystem that are not yet documented and could go extinct before anyone even discovers them.

"We have the power to change it," Lucas said.

The students already were making changes themselves.

Sweeney said when she visited her father in Colorado this summer she kept turning up the thermostat from 65 degrees to save energy.

"He would leave for work and I would turn it up every day to 78," Sweeney said. "And he’d get home and he would put it back."

He eventually settled on 76 degrees, she said.

Lama recalled picking up a piece of litter along Chancellor’s Walk recently and being asked by another person why she did so.

"Why wouldn’t you?" Lama said.

When asked about lasting changes that can come from one decision, the students said they hoped that is something viewers take with them. They plan to have an action link on their upcoming website,, that will invite people to make pledges of environmentally friendly changes.

"If they walk away with one thing that they will make a difference in, if everybody did that who saw the video, the world would be such a better place to live in," Lucas said.

The premiere, which starts at 6:30 p.m., is free and open to the public and includes a panel discussion and interactive educational booths. To RSVP or learn more, visit

Wrightsville Beach Mayor David Cignotti said he planned to attend the premiere.

"Where we live on the coast, certainly we need to be cognizant of the science that is available that supports sea level rise and global warming," Cignotti said Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Climate and sea level changes can accelerate barrier island migration, said Anthony Snider, an assistant professor of environmental studies at UNCW.

"Barrier islands are critical to protecting the coast," Snider said Tuesday, Sept. 20. "One of the main features that ensures the stability of those islands is the maritime forest."

The documentary will become available online for teachers to use, along with a high school curriculum.

Several organizations helped support the documentary project, including the aquarium and Coastal America. The group took a trip to Washington, D.C. earlier this year for a student summit and presented the project and some film clips.

With a year’s worth of work behind them and the premiere just days away, Ennes took a moment to tell the students that she sees them as the face of change and today’s youth as an underserved and underutilized audience.

"I don’t think this is a topic that most people gear toward the youth of our country," Ennes said. "You’re the ones that are willing to take charge and make those changes."

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