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Viewing Melting Glaciers, Via Microscope and Moving Images

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McCarthy, at the rock mechanics lab.

Climate change has become fertile ground for both scientists and artists, with its potential to reshape landscapes as well as human civilization itself.

Two women investigating climate change from different perspectives—Christine McCarthy, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Denise Iris, a multimedia artist from Brooklyn—had a chance to spend several days together recently. In the Rock Mechanics Lab at Lamont, where McCarthy works, and a nearby “cold room” chilled to the climate of an industrial freezer, they exchanged notes on two ways of looking at ice.

A former professional cheerleader with cropped hair and a quick smile, McCarthy wants to understand the physics of ice. If you push on it and squeeze it, what happens to the crystals? Knowing how ice behaves at the molecular level is one key to understanding how fast glaciers may flow into the sea, and thus how high seas might go as climate warms.

A native Romanian with a calm intensity, Iris is making a movie that juxtaposes the heroic age of exploration in the Arctic with an ice-free future. After a film shoot off Svalbard, Norway, last fall, Iris came to Lamont to record ice crystals growing and melting under a microscope. When finished, her three-screen video installation will feature a lost and dying early 20th century explorer meeting his future self in a world without ice.

“I want to get at the dreamlike, unconscious, poetic relationship we might have with these landscapes and ice,” she said.

Filmmaker Denise Iris.

In looking for a place to observe ice up close, Iris stumbled on McCarthy, who was just starting up a set of ice-friction experiments at Lamont. Over several days in her lab and the minus 17 degrees Celsius walk-in freezer, the two women worked on their respective projects.

At the time, McCarthy was perfecting her recipe for polycrystalline ice, meant to mimic the ice that makes up nature’s massive glaciers. One of the problems facing scientists who try to model sea-level rise is that tidewater glaciers seem to move in fits and starts as they slide into the sea. Slowing at high tide, and speeding up at low tide, their variable flow rates make it difficult to accurately model sea-level rise. McCarthy thinks that such glaciers might move at different speeds based on how individual ice crystals respond to the bedrock below and overlying ice above.

To test her hypothesis, she has built a machine that will push and squeeze the polycrystalline ice she has made in the lab. By measuring how quickly this ice slips, much as rocks do during an earthquake, McCarthy hopes to learn more about its properties, potentially improving sea-level rise estimates.

Making ice for mechanical testing is not as easy as pouring water into an ice cube tray. McCarthy needs grains of uniform size, without any bubbles or impurities.(She will systematically introduce flaws and impurities later). Making this type of ice is a three-day, 12-step process. “[Ice cubes] are fine for your drinks, but to understand a mechanical process that’s probably grain-size dependent, we really want that uniform nature,” she said.

In the cold room next door, Iris would also film individual crystals growing before her eyes under a light microscope. “It looks alive somehow,” she said. “There’s an excitement there.”

Through trial and error and watching lots of YouTube videos, McCarthy had improved her technique when Iris arrived at Lamont. To her surprise, Iris had little interest in her experimental ice. What intrigued her were the failures—the blocks with bubbles, varied grain sizes and impurities. “We are plagued by the bubbles, and she loves the bubbles!” said McCarthy in apparent disbelief.

One afternoon, Iris dropped a block of bubble-filled ice into a fish tank. With film rolling, she watched as the floating blob melted into the surrounding water. In the cold room next door, Iris would also film individual crystals growing before her eyes under a light microscope. “It looks alive somehow,” she said. “There’s an excitement there.”

In the lab, McCarthy is a self-described control freak, manipulating perfectly made ice in exactingly controlled experiments. Iris, by contrast, is open to serendipity. If something unexpected happens while playing with the ice, she thinks about how to incorporate that into her piece.

Both like the idea that their collaboration may expose new people to art and science.

McCarthy hopes that Iris’s installation will connect people to climate change more viscerally. Iris hopes that people will appreciate the creativity of science. “Science is the dominant, authoritative discourse of our time,” she said. “At the same time, art can engage with people’s imagination and bring out the emotional dimension of these issues.”

Related: McCarthy’s Extreme Lab Makeover Blog

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