Artists, scientists and researchers probe ancient polar ice to map climate change

WITH news that Glasgow has had its warmest summer on record this year, a local echo of a growing global catastrophe which has been symbolised on news channels worldwide by wildfires raging everywhere from the shores of the Mediterranean to the melting permafrost of Siberia, and record deluges and floods, there should be little more needed to jolt the COP26 delegates, headed in their various carbon-producing manners to Glasgow later this month, into action.

We can always hope, but if addressing the climate emergency at this UN Conference is long overdue, kindling that desire to act is arguably best done through the heart, not the head, which is where Polar Zero comes in.

This is climate change writ large as art, an immersive installation at Glasgow Science Centre, which will itself will host the Green Zone, an area for the public to engage with climate science and make their voices heard, for COP26.

The exhibition is the work of Royal College of Art PhD candidate Wayne Binitie, in collaboration – over a number of years, with scientists and researchers at the British Antarctic Survey, engineering specialists at Arup, the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the RCA. The crux is the interpretation and presentation of the ancient polar ice record and what it says about our past, our besieged present, and our uncertain – yet we must hope salvageable – future.

Binitie, who began his career as an award-winning scriptwriting graduate, first embarked on this series of work in 2013, when he made a trip to Iceland to visit Roni Horn’s celebrated Library of Water, a sea-side repository in which the artist has collected and written stories of water. That informed “the thinking and making of my collaborative project with Arup and the BAS,” Binitie has said.

“The quest of Polar Zero is not to attempt to speak for polar water but propose a form of writing and making that exists in currents, flows, forms and surfaces discovered during the course of research.”

At the heart of the exhibition is a sculpture called “1765-Antarctic Air”, a glasswork containing an ampoule of air extracted from an ice core mined by BAS scientists deep below the Antarctic, in the year which is commonly agreed, in science circles, as marking the start of the Anthropocene – just before point at which the effects of the Industrial Revolution became apparent in the atmosphere. The process by which this was done remains a secret, but it is a powerful motif, for it is only in the Antarctic ice cap, so threatened now by global heating, that these layers of atmospheric history – of actual air from the past – exist.

The floors and walls of the centre, both interior and exterior, are inscribed with Binitie’s “Ice Stories”, reminiscences, anecdotes, and ephemera from scientists and others who have spent time in or with the polar ice. “As visitors walk past in the dark,” says Binitie, “the words may well appear and disappear like polar ice itself.”

And remarkably there is polar ice, too, part of one of the cores drilled some 2km down through the ice, containing trapped air bubbles from past centuries, from which it is possible to sample the exact amount of any atmospheric gas present at that time. This particular installation presented its own technical challenges – how to arrest the melting of the ice so that it would drip in an active manner, yet not melt all at once. How indeed, to cause melt to happen when keeping the ice frozen was paramount. The solution, which again involved the engineers at Arup, involved not the use of refrigerating equipment, which would have been incredibly environmentally unfriendly, not least in this context, but the use of just the right amount of insulating material higher up the core, retaining a regulated speed of melt and the atmospheric sound of bubbles of air from times long past bursting in to our modern world.

It is that sound that Binitie has recorded and worked in to a musical soundtrack to evoke the passing of time. It aims to be immersive stuff, allowing visitors to get up close, not only to the ice, but to the concept of climate change, of global heating, and of the fragility of the planet on which we live – one in which we tamper with the Earth-writ concepts of the long stretch of Deep Time at our peril. And as BAS Glaciologist Robert Mulvaney says, of this rather inspiring science/art collaboration, “The skill of the artist is in helping us tap into human emotion to provoke curiosity, action and hope for the future.”

Polar Zero, Glasgow Science Centre, 50 Pacific Quay, Glasgow, 0141 420 5000 Until 18 Oct, Daily 10am-5pm


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The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992