Tag Archives: Ice Cores

WAIS Divide Science Meeting 2010

Last month I attended the annual WAIS Divide Ice Core Project Science Meeting to give a presentation of my artwork. It was a fascinating experience to be in a room full of about 100 of the most distinguished ice core scientists and graduate students in the United States and reassuring to see the rigor, integrity and brilliance these folks bring to climate science research. Their primary agenda is to more fully understand glaciers and the dynamics that drive global climate processes. Having worked around these folks for the past several years, I can say that there is a high level of self monitoring and critique. Even minor discrepancies in data are scrutinized thoroughly, only the most ironclad conclusions ever make it through their review and are published.

I was honored to give a short presentation about my art project to this crowd. It was a nice milestone to summarize the past several years, researching and developing artwork about ice cores and glaciers. It was even more nice to get a genuinely interested response to the presentation. They were glad to have an artist show up interested in their work. But also, I think that my images and story offered a unique view to their work, just as their research gave me new insight into my work. To have this cross communication was one of my primary goals and satisfying.

After returning from the conference, I jumped back into the studio, madly getting the paintings and prints ready for exhibitions at Francine Seders Gallery and the Gage Academy of Art. It is a bit difficult to shift gears from creating new images, to the various tasks involved in preparing for two shows and public presentations. I have so much more to explore with this work and part of me wants to stay buried in the studio to wander in the big white and clear spaces of this subject. But it is also valuable to have the work seen, to brave the public’s response – whatever that may be. It will be interesting to have that perspective, however, I look forward to the next year, making more prints about the WAIS Divide field camp and creating a catalog with stories and images of this journey.

Visit to the Mt Waddington Ice Core Project

I just returned from an amazing journey into the heart of the British Columbia Coast Range. Mt Waddington sits about 15 miles inland from the inside passage and being the highest peak around, captures a huge amount of precipitation from the Pacific Ocean. This is why Eric Steig (Professor, University of Washington), Doug Clark (Associate Professor, Western Washington University), Peter Neff (graduate student, University of Washington) and a team of other scientists are camped out at 10,000 feet on Combatant Col, directly below the summit. They are there to extract approximately 250 meters of ice from the glacier. This ice will be the first from this region to be analyzed and should offer lots of new information about the climate history of the north pacific, an area without a long record of detailed weather data.

The trip north into the Coast Range took me through a glaciated landscape that looked as if it had recently emerged from under the ice. In fact the land is relatively fresh; the last glacier receded from these valleys less than 13,000 years ago, a blink, geologically speaking. I thought a lot about West Antarctica winding through these valleys. Both of these areas have had ice covering them, are next to a coastline and if (or when) the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, it will have an inland water body surrounded by mountain ranges, very similar to the northwest. I began to think about the ice as a shell, covering the earth and suppressing the potential for life. The valleys we drove through felt young and raw.

Once at the White Saddle Ranch, we settled in to wait for good weather and the need for a helicopter trip to bring down ice core from the field camp on the Col. My husband Paul and I spent the next day sketching and made dinner for graduate student Kelley Sterle, who was coordinating logistics and supplies. That night we heard from the field camp that the weather was stable and they had 20 meters of ice core to be taken down to a freezer truck waiting at the Ranch. I was in luck, so began tossing through all my equipment to head up early the next morning. I had to take a full compliment of mountaineering gear in the extremely unlikely event that we would have to climb to a lower elevation (I chose not to contemplate this too deeply). I also took up some sketching supplies and what I hoped would be treats for the research group.

Yes, the helicopter trip was amazing. The exceedingly competent pilot Les pointed out various features as we flew over the valley towards the peaks of the Coast Range, including where he had grown up. The helicopter rose above the green and browns of the lower elevations and into a white and granite land. I was surrounded by glaciers swirling between peaks, broken and cobbled ice falls, steep avalanche slopes striped with crevasses. There were several aqua blue melt lakes glowing in the middle of the scimitar glacier. In about half an hour we crested the edge of Combatant Col, gleaming white in the early morning sun. From our height, the tents of the camp looked like little dots, but the tower of the drill was distinct and I saw several folks waiting at the landing site ready to load the cores drilled the night before.

Camp leader Niki Bowerman gave me a tour and then, like most of the other team, retreated to her tent for much needed rest. Summer daytime temperatures can reach well into the 60’s on the Col, so the team drilled, logged and packed up the cores at night. I set myself up to sketch the two peaks, Combatant and Waddington, that defined the col like two bookends. The other two edges of the Col dropped away steeply to flow down the Scimitar and Tiedemann glaciers creating a slightly bowed table of snow about the size of two football fields. Looking Southwest, dark gray granite spires poked above white and blue and the Homathko Ice Field spread like cheese cake across a range in the distance. To the north, endless peaks floated into the distance. Though not visible, the coast and densely populated Vancouver Island were less than 20 miles away. Unbelievable to me as I contemplated overland travel and listened to avalanches rumble off of Mt Waddington.

To avoid being sunburned to a crisp, I popped back and forth between my solo tent, the group tent and sketching on the snow. I took a short nap and prepped food for dinner, wanting to stay awake for part of the drilling operation. It turned out to be a good idea given the night ahead. Various members of the crew emerged and retreated throughout the day, but at about 7 pm everyone gathered in the group tent looking for coffee and food to prepare for the nights drilling.

Set apart from the camp, the drill tower stood outside, secured by guy wires. A small box housed the motor and controls to raise and lower the cable and drill. This drill has been operating on remote glaciers throughout the world for several decades, though most of the parts have been replaced over that time. It is a simple, but effective design for drilling shallow cores. The seasoned drill operator, Bella, uses experience and finesse to fine tune and troubleshoot variable conditions. The DISC drill used for the WAIS Divide Ice Core Project, on the other hand, must cut through 2 miles of ice, and preserve the ice at a much colder temperature. This state of the art drill is housed inside a metal arch building and is operated remotely using a complex computer program that receives input from multiple sensors mounted on the drill. I admit to feeling biased towards the relatively low-tech machine, as it appeals to my anachronistic tendencies. But I know that it isn’t capable of pulling up ice and atmosphere trapped in the ice sheet 100,000 years ago.

Now back at my studio, I am using my sketches of the peaks and col to create a triptych of drawings. I grapple with the range of scales and tones of white. The glacier landscapes have a beauty that is so frail and a strength that I am incapable of fully grasping. The white and the wind pushes all other thoughts aside. So I work on the images, my goal to convey a tiny glimpse of these astounding places.

Making a Mallow Core – Science in Middle School

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation about the WAIS Divide Ice Core Project for 8th grade art and science classes in the Seattle Public School system. I am grateful to the brainstorming sessions with Heidi Roop, a scientist that I met at the WAIS field camp. She has teaching experience and is a very creative thinker for developing activities for kids to learn about science. Our goal was to have the kids understand how particles and gases get into ice sheets. I also wanted the students to look at patterns and shapes in the core as a launching point for learning about natural processes. Heidi came up with the idea to use marshmallows as the ice and sugar sprinkles for particles.  I cut plastic sleeves used to protect florescent bulbs into lengths for the ice core and made wooden “tampers” to form the cores.

The art and science class presentations were a little bit different from each other. I first visited an 8th grade art class at Eckstein Middle School. In this particular class, the kids have chosen to take art as an elective for the entire year so I had a luxurious 1 1/2 hours for our activity. We began by talking about precipitation; visualizing snow falling through the air and what it would encounter on its way to the ground. I then distributed the tubes, “tampers”, and the marshmallows and particles. Each table of 4 kids were instructed to press the particles into marshmallows and add them to the core tubes. As the “crystals” accumulated, they tamped them down to mimic the pressure of more accumulation. At a certain point I yelled out “Volcano” when they were instructed to dump a little pile of Nerd candy to create an ash layer. This turned out to be a very exciting moment; they were very interested in seeing the Nerd layer in the cores they created. The kids then were asked to make drawings of the cores. They blew me away with their talent and focus. I love the variety of the styles. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see some of their drawings.

The following week I joined Emily Elasky’s 8th grade science classes at Mercer Middle School. There were four classes back to back (whew), with a lunch break in the middle, so I had to make sure everything could be set up and cleaned quickly. Again the kids worked in groups of four students and were predictably agog over the opportunity to do a science project with marshmallows. The students made their cores and were then asked to write responses to several questions: What events in nature would affect the distribution of different particles? How would you test the core to determine the distribution of particles? What could you learn about the climate from testing for particles? The project reinforced several concepts about climate, how glaciers form and how the ice traps particles.

After the activity, I showed them pictures from my journey to Antarctica, talked about the National Science Foundation artists program and showed a video about the drill operations (thanks to Heidi Roop and Thomas Bauska). I wanted the students to see how similar the pursuit of science and art can be and to illustrate the myriad ways that we can all learn more about the world around us. Of course it is impossible to gauge the influence that my visit had on these kids. I know that they rarely get an opportunity to learn about the diverse ways that artists develop ideas. Or to consider the wide range of opportunities that are available for scientists, artists or virtually any occupation.  I assumed I would never be able to travel to Antarctica, certainly not to create art. But once I determined that it might be possible, the path to this project opened up for me.

Drawings from Erin Shafkind’s 8th Grade Art Class at Eckstein Middle School

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In the Studio – making sense of it all (?)

“Easton Glacier” 24″x48″ 2010, graphite, gesso, acrylic

Traveling to and existing in the beautiful white expanse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been a dream since childhood. Now, back in my daily life, holding onto the experience is like holding onto ice that will inevitable melt or sublimate away. All I can do is watch as it morphs in my brain from a series of complex and layered memories to more concrete, but remote stories that can be stored and recalled as I sift through ideas to visually express “the place of white”.

Back in the studio, these memories are requiring a bit of processing, so to speak. Prior to my trip south, I was creating drawings of Northwest glaciers (see Easton Glacier, above). Now, I am making lots of sketches and experiments to flesh out my Antarctica “field notes” into more developed work that carries the thread of the previous drawings, but hopefully captures this place.

It is a bit terrifying to venture into such unknown territory. The white space is so unlike the dirt and bark of my previous subjects. It requires me to pay attention to what is really important about making new work. Are artists required to stay within boundaries defined by previous work, or are we free to explore any media and marks that express the new ideas? And where is the balance between continuity and monotony?

Reflections from the Ice


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I am home and sorting through notes, sketches and photographs from my travels south. Paul and I had a great time in New Zealand. We hiked in the Queen Charlottes, Abel Tasman,  and on the west coast; drove through wine country that felt like the Napa Valley; saw many strange birds and entire forests of very cool looking plants. But my head was and continues to be filled with memories of the West Antarctic plateau. It made an indelible mark in my mind.

Walking around Discovery Point at night

The journey to Antarctica was both difficult and oddly familiar. Having read many stories about the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), I vaguely recognized many places and activities. At the same time, is was all strange and a bit overwhelming, though not in ways I predicted. I assumed the cold would be the most challenging aspect of being in Antarctica, but it turned out to be fairly easy to cope with. If it was windy, I tolerated a limited amount of time outside, though more time if I was dressed properly. If it was foggy, I couldn’t see to draw. Changing clothes to be comfortable both outside and inside was a high art form and occupied a measurable portion of the day. For me, the most difficult aspect of the weather was needing to being ready to shift activities at a moments notice. I tend to draw slowly, and because of the ever changing conditions, relied heavily on my camera to capture these places.

It was summer there, so the weather was relatively mild, less severe than my friends in Fairbanks often experience. The coldest conditions I experienced were in the ice core handling arch at -25°C (or -13°F) and during the moderately windy days we had while I was there, creating a windchill of approximately -20°F. Of course this is cold, but nothing like winter temperatures, and I had the Big Red – an amazing warm coat that was like a portable shelter.

My tent at the WAIS field camp – a toasty “Arctic Oven”

I struggled much more with “phantom” weather and fears of a “white out”. Before going into the field, all USAP participants must attend a two day snow survival course.  We went through a “white out” scenario wearing white buckets on our heads while trying to locate our instructor lying outside. The most troubling part of this exercise was watching another group lose their orientation within minutes of being beyond the tent. We were told that white out conditions can occur quickly; but how quick I wondered? Apparently, it is particularly easy to lose track of weather conditions while engaged in your work. So every time I wondered out to draw or look around, the fear of white out followed me around like a bad memory.

This fear dissipated gradually over the two weeks I was at the WAIS field camp. I was surprised and a bit embarrassed by how long it took to acclimatize to the conditions of camp. The actual altitude at the WAIS Divide is 1766 meters (5783ft), but cold air is less dense and the atmosphere is thinner at the pole. These factors mimic higher altitude conditions (i.e. less oxygen, pant, pant!). I was told that the equivalent altitude was about 8000 feet. Walking around the first few days in bulky clothing through drifting snow in flat light was exhausting.

Footsteps left behind after a wind storm

Eventually, I did acclimatize and wandered about the camp taking in all of the images and activities around me. I made several visits to the drill arch to see just how the cores are acquired. While I was there, the drill had to travel approximately a mile down, cut a 3.3 meter section of ice and return to the surface with it. Each run took over 2.5 hours. I stared at the cable as it traveled along, trying to imagine this depth. I wanted to believe that I could perceive the distance, the thickness of the ice that I stood on. But I could only grasp it within a story that I told myself similar to how I am describing it now in words.

It was only slightly easier to perceive the flat white space of the plateau. Seen from 20,000 feet, the camp appeared as tiny marks on a large white sheet of paper that faded into the edge of my vision. Walking around, it looked like a very large field of white. I could gauge distance by using markers that are placed to determine weather conditions. I told myself the story that the third black marker was three miles away, so I could see three miles of space. But again, I had no real physical or sensory understanding of this space.

Instead, the large white space began to alter what I focused on and what I thought about. At first, the white appeared without definition. After being outside walking or skiing I began to see finer grained details in the snow and subtle variations in the white of the overcast ski. The flags were a very important feature in the landscape, taking on much greater meaning than they would have anywhere else.  They are used to mark routes, danger, food, fuel and supply caches and even where to pee.

I brought back all of these impressions, along with 1500 photos,  a small book of writing and sketches and about 18 small drawings to sort through in the studio. I have begun to make some preliminary drawings and etchings and will share progress of this work periodically over the year. I will also continue to post stories and pictures from this amazing trip.  Below is a small collection of photos:

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