OMG: An Artist Flew over the Greenland Icesheet

In a recent article in Nature Climate ChangeSonja van Renssen describes various mediums through which visual artists and musicians represent climate change. She argues that illustrating climate change through art can ground it in our culture and open up new dialogues. She offers several examples, including Justin Brice Guariglia, who recently became the first artist in history to be involved in a NASA mission. He is in the midst of a five-year commitment to join NASA flights over Greenland from 2015 to 2020 in order to visually document changing climate.

Justin Brice Guariglia in front of his piece “APR 23, 2015 19:08:026 GMT.” (Source: Science Friday/Twitter).

Guariglia’s work is inspired by scientific data, but it is not featured directly in his art. His prints focus on the connection between humans and nature during the Anthropocene, the current geologic age of the Earth. As Renssen explains in her paper, the Anthropocene is the time period when “human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”

Guariglia’s enormous pieces dwarf the viewer. Jakobshavn I, a recent project, is an acrylic print on polystyrene that represents a glacier in Greenland. He prints his large-scale photographs on durable materials. Guariglia’s hope is that while the glaciers themselves may not last, his art will endure, according to Renssen.

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One of Guariglia’s pieces on display at TwoThirtyOne Projects in New York City (Source: Justin Brice Guariglia/Instagram).

Guariglia is a member of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) project, which researches the effects of ocean warming on Greenland’s glaciers. The project takes high resolution elevation measurements of these glaciers each year during the spring to measure annual glacier retreat. In addition, a second mission takes place each summer, during which 250 temperature and salinity probes measure the temperature and salinity of water in the Atlantic Ocean. These combined datasets will improve modeling of sea and ice interactions, helping to improve estimates of the contribution of Greenland’s ice to global sea level rise.

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A land art piece in Sante Fe. Participants covered in blue tarp in the dry riverbed are meant to illustrate how climate change affects people at local levels (Source: Don Usner and 350 Earth).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Josh Willis, the principal investigator for the OMG NASA mission, explained that he is “excited by the collaboration with Justin because it means we might be able to connect with people who have a hard time relating climate change to their own daily lives. That’s important to me because climate change is a big deal, and I think we’ve been slow to accept it.” Other scientific organizations like the National Science Foundation agree with NASA’s investment in blending climate change and art. The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program sponsors individuals in the humanities, including painters and photographers, to be inspired by and help document the heritage in Antarctica.

The trend in using art to portray the detrimental effects of climate change could be a creative alternative to communicating environmental risks. For example, alumni and faculty from the University of Miami recently used film, photography, and land art to illustrate climate change issues. Like Guariglia and Willis, this intersection of science and art could be uniquely effective in communicating these risks.