‘A little time capsule’: Artist puts centuries-old ice on display

Artist Wayne Binitie inspects his sculpture on display in Glasgow, Scotland, ahead of the U.N. climate change conference in November. (AFP)

A glaciologist and an artist have come up with a unique and creative way to highlight accelerating global warming and rapid glacier melt ahead of the 2021 U.N. climate change conference coming in the weeks ahead, and, in doing so, they may just have created the ultimate time capsule.

They’re inviting people to see, hear, touch, and even taste time by examining an Antarctic ice core that contains trapped air bubbles that reveal a record of our past climate spanning centuries.

“Here we have an opportunity to touch something precious. We won’t normally have that proximity to polar history,” artist Wayne Binitie told Agence France-Presse (AFP), an international news agency. “But here there is something intriguing about, almost a primal thing, of touching geological time and place and to kind of get a sense of what it means to be in contact with that.”

“1765 – Antarctic Air” is the product of an unusual collaboration between Binitie and glaciologist Dr. Robert Mulvaney. The artwork is made from Antarctic snowfall that is two-and-a-half centuries old. Mulvaney mines ice for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the United Kingdom’s national polar research institute. He’s been trekking to the Antarctic for years, camping in a tent for months at a time, to drill out ice cores.

“The essence of what we’re doing as scientists is to record what happened to the ice sheet over a period of many thousands of years: that way we can investigate what happened to the climate and to the atmosphere,” Mulvaney explained to the BBC. “So the British Antarctic Survey was delighted to cooperate on the art project because we want people to understand what’s happening to the polar regions.”

The average annual temperature of Antarctica’s interior is 70.6 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (57 degrees below zero Celsius), according to the Australian Antarctic Program. The coast is a bit warmer with average temperatures around 14 degrees Fahrenheit (10 below zero C). Because it’s the coldest climate on Earth, snowfall in Antarctica doesn’t melt at the surface. It builds up year after year, compressing all the layers of snow beneath. The deeper scientists drill, the older the ice core samples will be. ” As we drill down, we’re driving further and further into the past — a bit like counting the rings of a big tree,” Mulvaney explained.

‘1765 – Antarctic Air’ is the center of the Polar Zero exhibition in Glasgow during the UN climate summit COP26. (AFP)

Thirty years ago, Mulvaney mined Antarctic snowfall from the year 1765, the date many believe the Industrial Revolution began and humans started to do serious damage to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels on an industrial scale. According to the BBC, “Analysis shows that in 1765 carbon dioxide made up 280 parts per million in the air. By the 1960s that had already increased to 315 parts per million. But today the figure is 415 per million.”

As an artist, Binitie wanted to highlight the purest possible air, trapped in ice just before the modern world started to pollute it. He, along with some engineers, created a cylindrical, glass sculpture in a massive steel frame to contain and display the t wo-and-half centuries-old ice and air from 1765.

“We’ve injected that liquid silicon with a volume of air that has been extracted from an ice core from 1765. So what you have suspended mid-air is a little time capsule, a little moment that is telling us something special,” Binitie explained his process to AFP.

Visitors can enter a room and see the glass sculpture containing silicone and air extracted from the ice on one side of the room. Because Bitinie wanted visitors to see and hear the ice melting and dripping away very slowly to make a point about global warming, there is a second cylinder of ice on the other side of the room. “It’s intact but you see it melting all the time: it will be replaced during the run of the exhibition with other ice we have in store,” Binitie said. “Visitors can touch and hear and, if they’re brave, even taste the second lot of ice.”

Geologist, Dr. Robert Mulvaney, touches a piece of 300 hundred-year-old ice he drilled 30 years ago from Antarctica. (AFP)

Even though the ice has played its part in the scientific process and is no longer significant to scientists, Mulvaney said it’s difficult to watch it drip away. “I’m allowing it to melt, which is actually quite difficult for me because I spent my life looking after ice cores, preventing them from melting,” Mulvaney said.

The installation is the centerpiece of Binitie’s Polar Zero exhibition in Glasgow, Scotland, which invites people to think about what our past means for the present and future climate. The exhibition will run throughout the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. It’s the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, and is scheduled to be held in Glasgow from Oct. 31 through Nov.12.

Binitie, who thinks the global warming conversation can often feel overwhelming and impersonal, told the BBC he hopes the artwork can highlight the crucial issue for people in a unique way. He said the goal is to “persuade people that the polar regions are a sufficiently precious thing to care about. Some perspectives are political or theoretical or economic,” Binitie mused, “but we’re trying to supply a poetic perspective too.”

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