• Art & Science Research Group

CLIMATE CANARY—By Sofie Gustafsson Markinhuhta

In the film documentary Chasing Ice from 2014, the photographer James Balog sets out to portrait the effect of climate change on our glaciers. With beautiful imagery and haunting timelapses the glaciers come alive, but look like they're dying.

While the footage is devastatingly clearly making political points about climate change, the high resolution footage is also beautiful in the same way that wildlife documentaries often become aesthetic entertainment. The crisp images make the wild feel real but more than real, the images are often way more vivid than what you would get to see if you traveled to the same sites. The more magical the images, the less related they seem from the realities of city lives.

During her talk, 20 years of polar science at the Bjerknes centre (1), Anne Bjune, Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, showed a quick timelapse from a glacier “in our backyard”. Sunny images of a mountainside and moving ice flashed by while she mentioned that the company GeoMonitor AS had put up a camera, shooting daily images of this glacier named Bondhusbreen, only three hours from Bergen.

I was intrigued by the thought of this daily archive and set out to find out if I could get to see more of it. Thanks to Anne Bjune and Pr. Jostein Bakke, I got in touch with Eivind Susort from GeoMonitor AS. The answer was positive, saying that they wish to contribute to spreading knowledge of what is happening to Bondhusbreen, he gave me access to their archive.

Logging in for the first time felt like finally unwrapping that you have been waiting on, while not knowing what the inside will be like. By the first glance, I was happy to be surprised to learn that the archive was full of a whole other kind of images than the ones in the time lapse.

The conditions of the glacier is measured by the movement of the cracks on the top of the ice. Large cracks speak of high speed and fast demise. Eivind told me how the scientists working with him call Bondhusbreen “the canary of the climate”, referring to the practise of bringing canaries down into mines as they are far more sensitive to poisonous gas than humans. A fainted canary is a warning signal, giving workers a chance to get out in time. These smaller glaciers like Bondhusbreen are like the canaries more sensitive than the larger bodies of ice, making their reactions to our already changing climate a warning.

Without any human or tree, the scale of the mountainside and ice is hard to make out. I could trace the cracks moving centimeters on my screen but I had no clue of how many tenths of meters that resembles for real. By measuring the demise that I could see of two years, and then making estimates of where the edge of the ice would have been two years earlier, and two years before that and so on, my sketch suggested the ice would have been just about covering this whole image when I was born. Of course this holds no scientific accuracy, and I could ask for help to answer this specifically, but I think the most significant thing might be simply how these images helped me unlearn the stubborn view of nature as static and constant.

While the images produced in the documentary Chasing Ice are dramatic and breathtaking, I found the images from Bondhusbreen captivating in another way. Being live fed from the camera to the online archive, they are a bit compressed, this and the 4x3 format reminded me of webcam photos. They felt intimate.

With one or two images per day since March 2018 there are now hundreds. The archive is full of images that look like something has gone wrong, where the view is obscured, where the glacier can just barely be seen or not be seen at all. I found myself picking out a selection of images that were very different from the clear sunny ones that I had seen used for scientific measurements.

Watching the glacier fade in and out of sight seemed like a rehearsal, towards grasping the actual slowly ongoing disappearance.

GeoMonitor AS have invited me to continue to work with their footage. I very much appreciate this, and the shift that occurs simply by inviting an artist.


(1) Talk presented at the Bjerknes Center annual meeting 15 September 2020, an international conference where the latest findings and technologies in climate research is presented and to which the Art & Science Group was invited as our course just began.

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