State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Echoing Wake of a Dying Glacier

The ground of a plaza is covered with gray topographical lines. There are thin gray poles that line the sides with trees and benches.
“Herald/Harbinger” artwork in Brookfield Place. Source: Jer Thorp

Walking through Brookfield Place in Calgary, pedestrians might miss the subtle sounds of bubbling water and breaking ice. Those who spend more time in the plaza, however, or happen to sit next to one of the 16 speakers in the plaza that are a part of the art installation “Herald/Harbinger,” might notice a larger cracking sound. Those sounds convey, in real-time, the devastating shrinking of Bow Glacier, located 135 miles northwest of the city in Banff National Park.

Collaborating with Jeffery Kavanaugh of the University of Alberta and conservation technologist Shah Selbe, artists Jer Thorp and Ben Rubin created the work in the lobby and plaza of the Brookfield Place commercial complex in 2018.

A valley is filled with a glacier and falls that lead into a large lake surrounded by trees.
Bow Glacier, waterfalls, and lake. Source: Jason Ahrns on Flickr

This artwork invites a dialogue between the glacier and the city where its meltwater eventually flows. Calgary is built on both sides of the river, and locals make use of the popular paths and parks that follow the water. “The connection between the Bow and the Calgary river system is so clear,” explained Thorp. “If you rowed a canoe up the Bow River you would end up at the Bow Lake where you can see Bow Glacier.”

Glaciers, such as the Bow, can appear to be enormous, unmoving masses of silent snow and ice. They are, however, constantly changing, a phenomenon that global warming has accelerated. Kavanaugh, the team’s glaciologist, noted, “glaciers are extremely dynamic, and their character changes from one part of the year to another.”

Far from being mere stagnant layers of ice, Bow Glacier is melting during warmer months faster than ice can flow into the glacier from the Wapta Icefield. Kavanaugh explained this phenomenon to GlacierHub. “The glacier is getting smaller every year. I say smaller because it’s a combination of retreat and thinning,” he said. “If the melt rate exceeds the rate at which the rate of ice is flowing in, then the glacier thins and the position where the ice ends, the terminus, also thins and looks as if it’s backing up.”

Bow Glacier retreated by more than 1,100 meters in the century between 1850 and 1953. Bow Lake, the lake that sits below Bow Glacier, is famous for its bright turquoise color that is caused by glacial sediment. The glacier that once stood in its place is now almost three kilometers away. As this glacier slowly turns to liquid, “Herald/Harbinger” is making sure that its shrinking doesn’t go unnoticed.

Two people stand next to the boxes and solar panels that make up a seismic observatory. Behind them is a large snow-covered glacier.
The team and their seismic observatory standing next to Bow Glacier. Source: Shah Selbe

Seismic observatories, which are often used to measure changes in the Earth’s crust, sit next to Bow Glacier recording movements, big and small, of the glacier against the bedrock. These observatories are equipped with geophones, which “literally means ‘earth listening device’,” explained Kavanaugh. “The larger signals you can feel and hear, the smaller ones you can’t detect but the geophones can pick up quite easily.”

Three collections of vertical LED lights are in front of a person walking on the balcony in a building.
The artwork’s vertical LED lights in the lobby of Brookfield Place. Source: Jer Thorp

Once the geophones register this data, it travels 220 kilometers to the art installation where it is translated into sound and LED light displays. Ben Rubin designed these sounds to depict the gurgling, creaking, and rumbling sounds he witnessed while on the glacier. Clusters of vertical LED lights then display blue horizontal lines that fluctuate according to what the speakers play. The base of the piece looks like a portion of a map with topographical lines that depict the geographical home of Bow Glacier.

Car horns, bus engines, and the footsteps of busy pedestrians in Brookfield Place interrupt the sounds of the glacier. The combination of these sounds is an audible reminder of the interconnectedness of glaciers and urban life. For Kavanaugh, who lives in Alberta, the discussions these sounds can inspire are important for Calgary. “Alberta is a largely oil and gas economy province,” he said, “and Calgary is really the hub of that. I thought this was a fantastic opportunity to bring glaciers into the daily consciousness of people who thrive in that city.”

“Herald/Harbinger” is part of a broader art movement that records, modifies, and presents environmental sounds. In an article from May 2017, GlacierHub explored this movement with the help of Jonathan Gilmurray, author of “Ecological Sound Art.” In a radio documentary about “ecoacoustics,” Gilmurray outlined the forces that make environmental sound art so powerful. “Unlike the visual, which is experienced as something outside of the body and thus removed from the self, listening to sound is an intensely personal, sensual experience that penetrates our body and gets inside our head,” he said, “we can become immersed in sound, bathe in it, get carried away by it.”

By bringing this sensorial experience to a public plaza, “Herald/Harbinger” presents a melting glacier in a new way. It is not a photograph, a collection of data, or a piece of foreboding news. Instead, it is a real-time presentation of a glacier’s slow death.

In an essay about the artwork, Thorp wrote, “it is measuring a death. A shifting, melting, prolonged, mostly inevitable death.” He later told GlacierHub “I describe this piece as a wake, and I hope that’s not mistaken as a funeral. I think there are positive things that can come out of a wake. We can think about the beauty of that glacier and the joy that it brings people as well as understand that it is dying.”

“Herald/Harbinger” is an effort to encourage the people of Calgary, a city that prospers economically because of the fossil fuel industry, to open their ears to the inexorable death of the glacier that has fed the city’s river for centuries.

Correction, Dec. 10, 2020: This post was updated to clarify that Jeffrey Kavanaugh is a professor at the University of Alberta, not Calgary, as originally stated. We regret the error.

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