Canada Glacier, Dry Valleys (2008)
The Antarctic is unlike any other place on earth: geographically, politically, and culturally. Larger than the U.S., it is a frontier where borders and nationalities take a backseat to scientific collaboration and cooperation, a place where the compass becomes meaningless yet navigation is a matter of life and death. It is an extreme environment, inhabited by some of the most unique species, but it is also an ecosystem undergoing rapid change. Last year I had the opportunity to go to Antartica for the first time, on a National Science Foundation-sponsored artist's residency where I worked alongside scientists studying how its weather and climate impacts on the global environment.
Prior to this trip, I had spent several years working in collaboration with atmospheric scientists to develop systems for understanding storm and climate information through sound (a process called sonification). I created a spatialized sonification of highly detailed models of storms that devastated the New York area; a series of sonifications of actual and projected climate in New York City’s Central Park, and one of the world's first locations for climate monitoring; and a real-time multichannel sonification and visualization of weather in the Arctic. I used data in my projects that I had collected from remote weather stations, but had never visited them. In going to Antartica, I hoped to find a way to engage more directly with the issue of global climate change.
I spent much of my time in the Dry Valleys (77°30'S 163°00'E) on the shore of McMurdo Sound, 3500 km due south of New Zealand, the driest and largest relatively ice-free area on the continent, completely devoid of terrestrial vegetation. It is a landscape of frozen lakes, glaciers, and mountain rocks that many scientists believe may be similar to the terrain of Mars in the distant past. I also stayed at the geographic South Pole (90°00'S), the center of a featureless, flat white expanse, on top of ice nearly nine miles thick.
In researching how I might approach a project in this unusual setting, I looked for inspiration from history. I connected with the writings of the explorer Richard Byrd, whose first expedition to Antartica was in 1928. In the diaries of his solo winter-over at a remote, dark, and frozen Antarctic camp, he writes of being alone, and slowly being poisoned from a faulty heating system. It was the weather instruments he monitored that provided him with solace:
"I was not long in discovering one thing: that, if anything was eventually to regularize the rhythm by which I should live at Advance Base, it would not be the weather so much as the weather instruments."
Unlike Byrd, my focus in Antarctica quickly shifted from the instruments to the technicians and the scientists who work there. I learned that many more people observe and record weather and climate in Antarctica than machines do—and that the scientists call this process of observation “ground truthing.”
LTER science technician Hassan Basagic at a Dry Valleys weather station (2008)
Why, with sophisticated instrumentation and remote sensing, do we depend on humans on the ground to look up at the clouds? What is the meaning of ground truth, and can it inform and enhance our relationship with the environment?
These are the questions I am exploring in my current series of works called Ground Truth. Ground Truth presents interpretations of weather data, interviews, and documentation of observers and scientists as they discuss, maintain, and gather data from remote sites.
In interviews with scientists about this subject, I was struck by how many spoke about the importance of nonquantitative knowledge. I thought that only numbers would matter to the scientists, not the visceral experience of a site, but I was surprised to find this was not the case. For example, Dr. Andrew Fountain, the lead principle investigator of the Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project, said:
"Just because you have the data doesn't mean you understand the system. It's important to come down and view the landscape and in our case view the glaciers, and see how the glaciers are reacting to these changing environments. And that feeds into our understanding and our nonquantitative knowledge."
This interview—as well as audio and video interviews with nearly 20 other science researchers, along with a preview of a short video documentary, raw sound recordings, images, video clips, and project updates—are accessible to the public on my website, www.90degreessouth.org. In addition to the video documentary, part of the Ground Truth project is a temporary public art installation consisting of a modified weather station interpreting data in real time. Audiences experience the instrumentation used by scientists and learn about the data being collected through visualizations and sonifications. The station has been installed at the Atlas Center for Art + Technology in Boulder, Colorado, and will be installed at Eyebeam in New York City during a summer/fall 2008 residency.
Polli at Atlas Center for Art + Technology, University of Colorado, Boulder (2008)
Despite the developed world's climate-controlled interiors and easy access to all kinds of produce at any time of year, we still remain dependent on the weather and climate. With global warming, our dependence is becoming even more apparent. In part, the purpose of giving the public access to measurement instrumentation helps people understand our connection to the atmosphere and promotes greater harmony with these natural forces.
Writing nearly 100 years ago in the harsh Antarctic environment, Richard Byrd had the realization that living simply, in touch with the earth's natural rhythms, is not only possible, but beneficial:
"It occurred to me then that half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need."
Andrea Polli is a digital media artist living in New York City. She is an associate professor in the Integrated Media Arts MFA Program at HunterCollege. Polli's work addresses issues related to science and technology in contemporary society, and often brings together artists and scientists from various disciplines. She also works with city planners, environmental scientists, historians, and other experts to look at the impact of climate on the future of human life both locally and globally.