State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Climate and the Opal Artisans of the Sea

Tiny one-celled organisms called radiolaria are ubiquitous in the oceans, but various species prefer distinct habitats. Thus it aroused considerable intrigue in 2012 when protozoa specialist O. Roger Anderson and colleagues published a study showing that radiolaria normally found near the equator were suddenly floating around in arctic waters above Norway. Was this a sign that global climate change was bringing an invasion of warm-weather plankton?

Scientists are still puzzling out whether this was an aberration, or indicator of a long-term trend. But the arctic sea ice is definitely receding, and northern ecosystems are changing. The overall phenomenon is the subject this month of an art exhibit at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Voyage of Discovery.” In the video below, Ellyn Weiss, one of three artists who created the exhibit, says, “We’re imagining a journey to one of the polar regions on the earth to the spot where the ice is receding because of climate change.” Many of the forms are inspired by radiolaria, as well as corals and other humble sea creatures. In conjunction with the exhibit, the AAAS invited Anderson to speak at a May 1 symposium, “Art and Science of Climate Change.”

Anderson’s talk was entitled “Radiolaria: Opal Artisans of the Sea and Climate Change.” It included images of real radiolaria–every bit as spectacular as the artists’ conceptions–and an explanation of their potential significance in climate research. Anderson, who does his research at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, pointed out that cold-loving plankton have formed the base of the arctic marine food chain for countless generations. “If ocean surface water increasingly warms due to global climate change, some species may die off,” he said. The consequences could be unpredictable. “There is early evidence that radiolaria can serve as indicators of climate change,” he said.

Michele Banks, another of the artists, said, “Scientists are hoping people are paying attention to their research. We’re not saying, ‘Here, we’re illustrating these findings,’ [but this is another way] to draw attention to what scientists are out there doing.” Jessica Beel, the third member of the trio, said that a few years ago, she was looking at biological imagery, and realized that many of the abstract forms she was creating already existed in nature. “Once you make the connection, you find them everywhere,” she said

“We are hoping we can encourage scientists to see this from our perspective, which is a more conceptual, emotional kind of perspective, than just from the data,” said Weiss.

Anderson liked the radiolaria-type forms. “They were not literal radiolaria, with all the details you’d see in a real organism. It was abstracted, but I could tell which ones they were,” he said. “They were quite nice, very elegant. The artists have done some very clever things.”

The exhibit will be up until May 31 at AAAS headquarters at 1200 New York Ave. NW, Washington.


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