Scaling Quelccaya: Depicting Climate Change Through Art

The Quelccaya Ice Cap, located in the Peruvian Andes, is the world’s largest tropical glaciated area. In an effort to conceptualize the scale of the glacier’s retreat, Meredith Leich, M.F.A. in film, video, media, and new animation at SAIC, and Andrew Malone, Ph.D. in glaciology and climatology at the University of Chicago, collaborated on a project in 2016 called “Scaling Quelccaya.” The project combines 30 years of satellite imagery of the Peruvian ice cap, 3-D animation, and gaming software to create a virtual representation of the glacier’s retreat using the city of Chicago as a “metering stick,” allowing viewers to develop a more elaborate sense of Quelccaya’s scale.

The 3-D animation enables viewers to visualize the Peruvian ice cap and virtually “fly” through the Andes by converting satellite data into a Digital Elevation Model, then using a gaming software called Unity to transform it into a 3-D model. “Scaling Quelccaya” was initiated by Leich, who acknowledged having only an incomplete idea about the impact of climate change at the start of the project. Malone’s research of the Quelccaya ice cap was then transformed into the 3-D animation in order to allow the audience to visualize the melting effects on the ice cap, a more effective tool than graphs or charts alone. Malone used satellite data from the Landsat program, a series of satellites that has provided the longest temporal record of data of Earth’s surface, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap, to provide an accurate representation of the amount of ice loss over this period.

Qori Kalis, one section of the Quelccaya Ice Cap, shown in 1978 (left) and 2011 (right) (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

This project allowed Leich and Malone to visually portray the consequences of climate change in ways that viewers could understand intuitively, contrasting the disappearance of the glaciers to a hypothetical disappearance of the Chicago area. In an interview with GlacierHub, Meredith Leich explains the inspiration behind the project’s comparison of Quelccaya with Chicago: “Instead of solely describing numerically how much Qori Kallis (one of Quelccaya’s glacial outlets) had retreated, we could show visually that the glacier had retreated the distance between the Willis Tower and the Tribune Tower in Chicago – a distance that an urban resident would understand viscerally, with embodied memories of walking the city streets.” The name of the project plays on the word scale, since it shows the scale of glacier retreat and allows viewers to scale the summit of a virtual glacier.   

To get a better understanding of Quelccaya’s volume of snow, Leich and Malone began generating DEMs – Digital Elevation Models – from the satellite data obtained from Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). The DEM calculated the height of every point on the glacier’s surface. The software then selected a shade of black, gray or white to represent each height. The uppermost height was registered as white, the lowest height as black, and every height in between mathematically assigned a corresponding shade of gray. Next, they generated a 3-D model with a gaming software called Unity by importing height maps as “terrains.” The terrain function read a combination of the DEM to create the virtual 3-D model based on the topography of the land. Finally, they used Maya, an animation and modeling program, to apply texture to the surface of the terrain, add light, and be able to move around the glacier to see it from all angles.

Digital Elevation Model of Quelccaya Ice Cap (Source: Meredith Leich/Tumblr).

Once the model was finished, Leich and Malone removed the equivalent of ice in Quelccaya and placed it on a model of Chicago as snow, with different variations of snow such as fluffy snow, firm snow, ice, and others. New York City (specifically Manhattan) is often chosen as a prime example of the effects of climate change because of its popularity. Rather than compare Quelccaya to New York City, the project focused on Chicago because of its lack of representation, and because the research and creation of “Scaling Quelccaya” took place in Chicago.

When asked about any challenges that they faced in recreating the glaciers through the 3-D technology, Andrew Malone told GlacierHub that “passing information between different softwares was a big challenge.” “We found early that files had to be in particular formats and that each software had its idiosyncrasies. One of our first (technologically) successful 3-D visualizations looked as though someone had taken a buzzsaw to every mountain top,” he said. “When I outputted the digital elevation models (DEMs) to an image in the correct format for Meredith, the QGIS default was truncating the highest and lowest elevations.” Once the models were complete, it allowed for their audience to connect to the glacial scenes and bring two distant entities, Chicago and Quelccaya, into the same space.

The project included a feature that enabled viewers to grasp how much of Quelccaya’s snow would cover Chicago. The city itself was under about 600 feet of snow, extending over almost all of the metropolitan area. According to Leich, the inspiration behind this feature was that this kind of visualization would make the science behind climate change more accessible and visually apparent. “Many stories about climate change also involve a doomsday narrative, and we wanted to convey something more subtle and informative than stoking fears,” she said.

Quelccaya Ice Cap (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

Meredith A. Kelly, a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth College, noted in an interview with the New York Times, that “the melting now under way appears to be at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record since the end of the last ice age.” If the ice cap melts away and disappears, it would leave millions of people in surrounding downstream communities, who rely on this water source for drinking and electricity, with a smaller and less reliable water supply.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Gustavo Valdivia, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at John Hopkins University, explained how some in Peru have been adapting: “People who live in Phinaya, the closest community to Quelccaya, are mostly herders of alpacas and llamas. In the last years, they have been building local irrigation systems, changing their herds’ composition – to include more resistant animals – and also changing their herding techniques.” If the Phinaya community does not have a water supply for their animals, ultimately, their livelihoods will suffer, he added. Projects such as “Scaling Quelccaya” attempt to demonstrate the  effects of climate change to the lay public by bringing effects such as these closer to home.