Nature’s art found in the science of climate chaos. Polygon Hummocks in Denali foothills. (Photo credit: Kerry Koepping)
Artists chronicle climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic
Working in various media, they're capturing the full glory of rapidly changing places.
by Kristen Pope May 12, 2021 for Yale Climate Connections
Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, Alaska’s Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, and when it is fully visible – a relative rarity since it frequently is enshrouded in cloud – the mass of rock and ice is mesmerizing.
The mountain was out in its full glory when renowned environmental photographer Kerry Koepping was trekking in its foothills a decade ago, but instead of staring up at the stunning mountain, he was transfixed by what he saw beneath his feet. The soft, pillowy tundra, dotted with blueberry bushes and other groundcover, was gathered in strange geometric mounds all along the ridge above the treeline.
He realized these hypnotic patterns in the ground were “polygon hummocks” caused by cyclical melting and refreezing of permafrost – a troubling sign of a warming world. His curiosity about the geometric display overwhelmed him, and he pointed his camera lens downward, capturing images that would give rise to the Arctic Arts Project, of which he is now director.
Artists ‘educate and inspire’ with backing of science
Using visual imagery as a powerful tool, the project helps scientists explain concepts like the troubling phenomenon of melting permafrost. It helps them also inform people who may not realize these captivating mounds of tundra are actually part of a cycle releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The results of those releases include hastening the melting of glaciers, raising sea levels, and bringing floods to Miami and other sun-drenched coastal cities where the tundra is the furthest thing from most people’s minds.
The project has created an opportunity for Koepping and other artists to allow their work, as the arts project describes it, to “educate and inspire, and to provide an understanding of the evolution of a warming world, through impactful imagery, backed by the most current science.”
Arctic Arts Project photographers travel with science teams around the world, capturing images of sea ice, glaciers, old growth forests, carbon sequestration, forest fires, and other signs of the toll that climate change is taking on the Arctic and other deeply vulnerable locations.
“There are absolutely dramatic visuals that are happening all over the world,” Koepping says.
On one expedition, Koepping’s team sought to provide an atmospheric scientist with visual evidence of methane – a colorless gas. After some contemplation, they ultimately decided to capture images of methane bubbling up in lakes in high alpine and polar regions, freezing in beautiful, exquisite patterns.
“Most people really don’t want to understand 10,000 data bits of any specific thing, but if you can put it in a visual term, that science can come to life,” Koepping says.
“We take the science from a 30,000 foot [perspective] and then try and drill down and get an understanding, not only of what it looks like, and why it’s relevant, but how does it apply?” Koepping says. “Why is methane so much of an issue to somebody in California? To someone in Colorado? In Rio de Janeiro? Why is it relevant to everyone’s life? We’re the interpreters of the science.”
Koepping thinks back to a time he was in Greenland by the Eqi Glacier, watching the glacier face calve off at an unprecedented rate. In the evening, the team retreated to their tents, but the calving continued, with thunderous booms throughout the night: Koepping described them as cannons going off every 10 minutes all night long.
“From a dramatic standpoint, ice loss is huge,” Koepping says. “It can be overwhelming emotionally when our teams are on the ground and seeing something year after year, or even within the context of a season. It’s very riveting to see ice loss in gigatons. You’re just struck by the magnitude of what you’re witnessing.”
Sharing those emotions and the importance of climate change is key to Koepping: “We try to bring the environment or subject to life and really give people an understanding of climate chaos, and, maybe more importantly, how it’s relevant to their own individual lives.”
Antarctica Artists and Writers Collective
All around the globe, artists are capturing their fears, worries, and hopes about climate change through their art. On the other side of the world, for instance, the Antarctic Artists and Writers Collective is helping to chronicle how climate change is compromising the integrity of the frozen continent. The group showcases the work of National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program alumni. That program brings artists to the southern continent’s scientific research stations to spend time in the field and portray their experiences creatively. They use mediums ranging from visual art to poetry, composition, videography, scientific illustration, graphic novels, writing, and more.
Thirteen previous program participants teamed up to put together a virtual show called “Adequate Earth: Artists and Writers in Antarctica.” It began early in 2021 and is scheduled to conclude in May, though exhibits may stay online beyond the closing date.
Ulrike Heine is Adequate Earth’s curator. Her Ph.D. thesis focused on climate change-related imagery, and in 2018 she curated a climate change related exhibit focusing on the Arctic Ocean.
“We have all the science data, which is so interesting, and it’s so hard for people to get the full picture and to understand what that actually means for their lives,” Heine says. “And art can do a lot. There are so many artistic practices, a whole range and spectrum that can bring up these questions and discuss them in a very different way, an emotionalized way, and a way that’s more tangible, more approachable using visual imagery.”
Helen Glazer is one of the artists participating in the show. She traveled to Antarctica from late 2015 to early 2016 during the austral summer season, exploring ice and rock formations, an ice cave, a penguin colony, and “blood falls” with unusual orange stains on the ice.
“I was constantly just blown away by the immensity of it, and just how utterly alien it is” Glazer says. “It’s so different from any other place that you can be. There are no plants, no trees, and there’s none of the usual landmarks that we use to understand distance … You just realize it’s this experience of vastness, I think [that] was something very memorable.”
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