Listening to nature’s music can teach us a lot about the ecosystem, whether it’s a forest or a coral reef. For example, when teeming with marine life, a healthy coral reef system produces a variety of sounds such as whoop, click, clack and pop. The Amazon rainforest also produces rich sounds that can be used to learn more about its biodiversity and even aid in conservation efforts. 

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Similarly, understanding and listening to the polar soundscape could help in the fight against climate change. Enter Siobhan McDonald. She is an internationally acclaimed award-winning Irish artist and traveled all the way to Greenland to record the soundscape of melting icebergs.

Related: Melting zombie ice is worsening sea level rise in Greenland

“Listening to the ice melting is like a cry from the Earth,” she said.

A glacier and icy horizon landscape

Dropping underwater microphones 

An international group of researchers installed hydrophones (underwater microphones) in the Davis Strait, which connects Greenland and Canada as part of a larger project to study changes in the marine environment. Of the 13 moorings that were deployed, five of them included hydrophones to record underwater sounds. 

For the next two years, the hydrophones will record a variety of sounds every hour at various depths and temperatures to capture the soundscape of wildlife, noise pollution, meltwater and even earthquakes and landslides. In 2024, the team plans to collect the devices, analyze the sounds and, for some, convert them into acoustic compositions. 

“It will be a multifaceted body of work, to blend scientific and creative processes to make sculpture, video, works on paper, paintings and this acoustic installation. The tone and the essence of the work will be determined by the sounds we listen to. This glacial water that I’m collecting is for a major new work to capture water, methane and oxygen from all the Greenland seas, ” McDonald explained.

She will also collaborate with a composer to create musical versions to showcase how humans have impacted the ocean. ​​The recordings will serve as a “time capsule” of the frozen world — preserving the melting ice’s soundscape. 

The artist was part of the polar expedition that included 21 scientists from Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Other scientists on this expedition conducted oceanographic studies, including ones on water chemistry, biology and sea birds, to name a few.

A black ink blot of a speciment

How are these sounds helpful?

Back in 2008, oceanographer Wolfgang Berger proposed the idea to study Greenland’s ice sheets using underwater sound. Although passive acoustic monitoring is a relatively new field in the Arctic, experts believe it has enormous potential.

For example, the majestic glaciers produce sounds such as rumble, snap, crackle and pop, which could provide information about flow, fracture, melt, mass and more. 

According to a study published in the journal Cryosphere, the volume of ice loss can be calculated based on the crashing sound generated by an iceberg collapsing into the ocean.

Photographic, satellite imagery techniques, seismology and sonar are commonly used to study ice melt. But it’s difficult to tell what’s going on beneath the surface. The expedition’s recordings can supplement these scientific research techniques and provide new insights into the underlying processes.

Moreover, in recent years, scientists have started to use underwater sound to predict ice melt. Understanding how fast the glacier is melting remains one of the biggest challenges. Decoding glacial noises can help predict mass loss, the stability of ice sheets and even sea level rise.

A woman wearing an orange life vest with a glacier backdrop behind her

Work on climate change

Her projects combine art and science to explore the effects of climate change.

“I don’t seek to transform climate change into art. Instead, I engage with the natural world to bring a focus and a feeling to the fragile and tenuous ecosystem we live in. This transformative process is what my art is about,” she said. 

The artworks evolve over time through a slow distillation of ideas, with a focus on “contemporary topics dealing with air, breath and atmospheric phenomena.” She creates artworks with natural materials collected from the expeditions, such as ice cores and ancient plant fossil materials dating back thousands of years.

One breathtaking work, titled “Methane Lake,” explores Arctic permafrost and plants preserved in a depository. The artwork traces different key moments of the past world through the calved Arctic ice sheet. While it also depicts “invincible methane” indicating the tipping point time about 20,000 years ago.

This new project is supported by the JRC SciArt project, the European Commission, the Arts Council of Ireland Project Award, Trinity College Dublin, Monaghan Coco, GLUON and The Ocean Memory Project.  

A device trapped inside a glass dome on a podium

Greenland is highly vulnerable

Greenland’s ocean is one of our planet’s most valuable ecosystems. The one-of-a-kind initiative comes at a time when scientists fear Greenland is becoming more vulnerable to rising temperatures than previously thought. In fact, McDonald visited Greenland in 2017, and she noticed several changes, including less ice cover on her most recent trip.

Because of the atmosphere and ocean warming, glaciers are rapidly receding. Greenland’s ice sheet mass has decreased at high-speed in recent years, according to satellite data. Surface melting and iceberg calving have been the causes of this rapid loss.

Greenland lost up to 280 gigatonnes of ice per year between 2002 and 2021, according to observations from two dedicated satellites known as GRACE and GRACE follow-on. This contributed to an increase in the global sea level by 0.03 inches (0.8 millimeters) per year. 

The melting of the entire Greenland ice sheet would result in a disastrous 7.4-meter rise in global sea levels. It will also have an impact on other ocean dynamics such as heat balance and ocean current circulation. 

Slashing hazardous greenhouse gas emissions is the need of the hour!

“I’m interested in indigenous Inuit peoples’ ways of seeing and being, represented in the view of how oceans, rivers, lakes and inland all belong together and function together in a wholeness that is needed in order to keep Mother Earth alive and thriving,” she concluded. 

Hopefully, through McDonald’s unique artistic work, humans will become more vigilant in taking sustainable steps to ensure the planet’s future security.

Via The Guardian.

Photography by Siobhan McDonald