If a glacier melts on a mountain, does anyone hear it?

Posted by on Aug 6, 2014

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In June 2014 the two of us—an anthropologist and an experimental musician, both from Peru– visited Quelccaya, a large glacier high in the Andes. We wanted to record the sounds of its ice as it melted. This trip formed part of our ongoing collaborative project. We are interested establishing new approaches to questions of climate change. The field recordings that we have included in this post present a sonic narration of our encounter with this glacier. They were made with a variety of low- and hi-fi digital and analog recording devices.

Our recordings begin by presenting the soundscape of the back of an open-top cargo truck moving through the Andean landscape. These sounds were recorded during our trip, many hours long, on dusty dirt roads to the community of Phinaya about 80 miles from the city of Cusco.

Once in Phinaya, we continued to the southwest section of the glacier, where a large, unnamed lake has recently formed. In 2004, this lake burst its banks, creating a flood that affected several families of indigenous herders, along with their animals. We recorded the sounds of a small and the largest tributary streams that flows into this lake. They both offer overlapping sonic forms as they wind their way through gaps between rocks and frozen soil, reverberating with the glacier and rock walls.

We continued on to a small upper stream, where drops of water fell from an icicle and splashed onto a rock. And then we paused to make a sonic image recording right next to one of the biggest faces of the glacier, seeking to capture the way that it absorbs the sounds of a small stream running next to it.


Up on the glacier, we explored a number of ice caves. We experimented with an omnidirectional microphone inside an ice cave five meters wide. We were struck with the dull sound of the water dripping from the top of the cave onto the floor and running both inside and outside the ice cave. We placed a low-fi Dictaphone inside a small ice cave, only 50 cm wide, which created a distortion effect. We used an omnidirectional microphone to a stream running inside the glacier.

As we continued, we found more sounds to record and more ways to experiment with our equipment. We placed an analogue hydrophone under the surface of a small stream, and captured the sounds of tiny rocks that this moving water displaced. And we were able as well to capture the interaction between massive ice blocks with minute ice crystals that fell from the surface of the glacier.

We plan to return to this astonishing soundscape that emerges as climate change drives glacier retreat. Next time, however, we want to bring more equipment and involve people from Phinaya interested in making their own recordings of the glacier. We also look forward to developing ties with other people who are exploring such soundscapes around the world, in the hope that the voice of the glaciers will stimulate an alternative sensorial approach to climate change; namely, one which is not dominated by visuality.

This guest post was written by Gustavo Valdivia and Tomás Tello. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

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5 Comments

  1. está bonito, pero ¿por qué todo en inglés?

  2. Debes ser. ¡No entiendo lo suficiente español!

    • En el futuro, GlacierHub podría ser un sitio multilingüe!

  3. Congratulations, a great idea! It reminded me spontaneously, how, returning form a soundscape studies grant in Vancouver to Switzerland in the early 1990s I had myself the idea of a dialogue between an alphorn player and a glacier. The difficulties were enormous, because nobody, including the alphorn player understood what this should be about. The glacier in question was the extremely steep Nestgletscher (http://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=13/46.3928/7.8618), presenting an active serac zone, a dangerous avalanche channel with torrential rivers in cascades, so an enormous variety of sounds. People will much more easily understand your “sonic footprint” approach, since the glacier melting has reached a phase of irrefutable visibility and global concern. The soundscape approach is sort of fluidising the static visual impression – static, since glaciers move and die at a different scale of time.

    • Another evidence that, climate change are changing the temperature of glacier stones, consequently this is melting the galcier which start of leaking and making underground rivers,
      The sound heard comes from those melted waters.
      I have found similar phenomenon in my study area of Huaytapallana glcier in central peruvian highlands

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. Photo Friday: Photos from the Field – GlacierHub - […] wrote a previous article for GlacierHub in 2014 in which he documented a summer trip to Quelccaya. During this…
  4. Glacier Residents Include Birds and Mammals - GlacierHub - […] its nest on the surface of glaciers in the Andes; it has been systematically studied on Quelccaya Glacier in…

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