Glaciers and Reefs with Diane Burko

This post was originally published by Sciart Magazine in December 2018.

Landscape paintings instigate in me a sense of long-lasting connection. They make me feel grounded. Yet, looking at the works of Diane Burko, I get a feeling of impermanence. Her landscapes do not look entirely solid. I see in them cracks, pores, and deformations with liquefied layers underneath. Exhibited at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., just a few of blocks from the White House, these works are a timely criticism from the artist, a well-established painter and photographer who has been devoting her work to environmental topics over the past few decades. Based on her extensive travel records, she designs series of paintings of vast glacial poles and island reefs. Her seductive, pleasing paintings of nature bate and pull us to fall for their beauty. And then, as we absorb the visual allure, we grasp the meaning of their inevitable loss.

“Arctic Melting” (2016). Oil on canvas (Source: Diane Burko/Sciart Magazine).

In her process, Burko takes on the roles of naturalist, painter, and activist. At the outset, she is a traveling naturalist. Through her extensive fieldwork she produces studious records of far-away geographies. Flying, hiking, and swimming, she photographs everything she sees, from the north and south poles to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Like a pre-19th century naturalist in fast motion, Burko criss-crosses the world, taking photographs in lieu of sketches, in the process of collecting information.

Back at her studio, Burko changes roles from an environmentalist traveler to an artist. Using her photographic surveys as the source material for her paintings, she develops them into final canvases. As her paintings emerge, however, they seem different to me from those produced by the early landscape painters. The old canvases are imposing, masculine pieces that depict awe at the permanence of nature. Meanwhile, hers are concerned, and gentle. The audience sees her genuine worry that these landscapes will soon be gone, and heeds her activist call to prevent such an outcome. In the context of the 21st century, her practice takes on an added meaning.

“Visions of Beaufort Sea” is an oil painting from her glacial series based on photos from the northern Arctic Circle. Burko constructs a glacial image form in thick impasto. She then interrupts this bright picture with patches of dark earth tones. She further dramatizes the imperfection of this glacier as she allows its surface to crack and appear damaged, revealing dark layers underneath.

“Visions of Beaufort Sea” (2016). Oil on canvas (Source: Diane Burko/Sciart Magazine).

In “Arctic Melting,” Burko captures an aerial view of another glacier using centripetal strokes. The snow seems unsettled as she draws cerulean gestural lines on the pasty white spiral. Other darker blues and ochres frame this round bright area. I can see the glacier as a centrifuge, losing its cohesion, turning the solid snowy mass into dynamic composition reminiscent of weather maps.

​The consistency of landscape becomes even more ambiguous in her more recent reef paintings in which earth and sky are indistinguishable. In her attempt to capture the fluid surfaces of disappearing corals in the American territorial islands, Burko shifts from oil to acrylic paint. This allows her to create thinner and more liquid-like surfaces. She handles her paint like watercolor, creating all-over pools of aqueous compositions meant to depict impressions of underwater colonies. “Faga’alu” is one such image of soft colorful patches blending into each other that we are guided by the label to interpret as water and sky. But Burko does not stop her work at the beautiful abstraction. Adding science-based visuals to her work, she magnifies certain pixels to show their detail, borrowing this vocabulary from computer mapping. She also adds pencil marks outlining the geographic shapes of the reef’s interface. These lines follow the narrative of dissolved corals washing away into the turbulence of sea and air.

“Faga’alu” (2018). Acrylic on canvas (Source: Diane Burko/Sciart Magazine).

Looking at her reef paintings, I get the sense that Burko is in a rush. She modifies her practice in order to be able to complete her survey, creating series of smaller works. “Reef Grid” (2017-18) is a set of 27 small panels hanging side by side in three parallel rows. “Reef Lenticulars” (2018) is another series of transparent layered prints displayed in light boxes. The columns and rows of these works reflect multiple schemes that encompass the richness of submerged seascapes. With their various colors bleeding into each other, these assorted panels give the sense of underwater chaos. Yet, at the same time, organized in matrices, these sets of images create the appearance of validated formats of biological ecosystem studies.

“Reef Grid” (2017-2018). 9″ x 12″ each. Acrylic on boards (Source: Diane Burko/Sciart Magazine).

Through her painted survey, Burko provides to the viewer something that the camera could not. Her canvases are permanent records and concrete objects that demand attention. They are different from photo documentations that we can easily click through. Burko makes us pause, insisting we return to the slow practice of engaging with painting. Although her style is different from that of earlier nature painters like Thomas Cole and Fredrick Church, she also retains their foundational belief that despite modernity, a direct connection between humanity and nature is still possible.

Nearly 200 years after her predecessors, Burko continues the tradition of showing our collective connection to the natural environment that we’ve been slowly melting and acid-washing away. She travels frantically and then paints in haste. Her encounters with nature offer testament to irreversible landscape changes. The escape to nature and the yearning for its stable connection turns into the acceptance of its imminent passing away. Thinking of landscapes as transient, she gives them the fluid quality of memento mori.

National Climate Assessment Report Under Review by Trump Administration

The Trump administration is assessing a 545-page draft report about the causes and impacts of global warming, including the imminent threat of glacial retreat. This draft report known as the Climate Science Special Report is part of the fourth National Climate Assessment, and it is undergoing a final interagency review by the administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and 12 other agencies. The New York Times published the draft report on August 7th, which brought a good deal of attention to the document, even though the information had been available at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit internet digital library, since January.

The Trump administration must decide whether to accept or reject a draft report that is part of the fourth National Climate Assessment (Source: Climate Nexus/Twitter).

On August 20th, the Trump administration took initial steps to weaken the effectiveness of the draft report by disbanding the federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment, the group that guides the report and helps policymakers and private-sector officials integrate climate analysis into long-term planning, raising questions about the future of the report. The charter for the advisory committee will expire on Sunday, August 27th, and the panel will not be renewed.

The report was written by a team of more than 300 experts from 13 federal agencies. The National Climate Assessment is one of the most rigorously sourced and vetted documents produced by the federal government, based on “peer reviewed journal articles, technical reports by federal agencies, scientific assessments, etc” and produced every four years since 1990. The latest assessment, which ultimately could be rejected by the Trump administration, concludes that the average annual temperature will continue to rise throughout the century, with global temperatures increasing between 0.5 and 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades. This could result in longer heat waves, disappearing snow cover, shrinking sea ice, and melting glaciers.

Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, told GlacierHub that shrinking glaciers actually have notable impacts. “For one, they help regulate water flow in glacier-fed rivers, providing meltwater for downstream water use in dry summer months when farmers and hydroelectric power stations most need the water,” he said. “Glacier retreat can also unleash outburst floods and avalanches from the unstable glaciers.” 

People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014 (Source: James Preller).

According to the assessment, the annually averaged ice mass from 37 global reference glaciers “has decreased every year since 1984, a decline expected to continue even if climate were to stabilize.” The findings stirred public interest because they refute statements from the Trump administration about the causes and effects of climate change. The Trump administration, including his cabinet members, have taken a different approach to combatting global warming, repealing environmental regulations and defunding climate research. Earlier this year, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and rolled back policies that former President Barack Obama put in place, such as the Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants.

The Trump administration also worked hard to save the coal industry and promised to increase oil and gas production by drilling in protected areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, which will increase emissions. Additionally, Trump has appointed members to his cabinet who openly deny anthropogenic climate change. Agency scientists have found that discussing climate change with EPA leadership has become taboo. The Interior and Agriculture departments have also banned climate change talk and cancelled meetings with climate change experts. The report is one of the administration’s biggest tests to date in regard to the their public opinion on climate change.

Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, recently told CNBC, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Since Pruitt’s arrival at the EPA, the agency has moved away from its historic practice of publicly posting data collections of emissions from oil and gas companies. To date, the EPA has also taken down more than 1,900 agency web pages that contain climate change information. It is also attempting to undo a water protection rule in order to dismantle previous regulations.

The latest assessment suggests average annual temperature will increase between 0.5 and 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

If the Trump administration rejects the information in the latest assessment, the move would be another step away from the global consensus, which recognizes melting glaciers, disappearing snow cover, and the reduction in the volume of mountain glaciers and continental ice sheets. By rejecting the report, Trump’s administration would directly contradict scientific conclusion that “many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.” Specifically, the report concluded that the planet has rapidly warmed over the last 150 years, finding it “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

In an interview with GlacierHub, Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, stated that the report’s disapproval would put in disarray the carefully constructed practices and approach used to build the report, but it would also further galvanize the scientific community to bring more science directly into the public eye. “A report from a different configuration of science organizations would certainly emerge,” Pelto said. “In the short run it will be a challenge to the community, but in the long run it will strengthen this community. Less dependence on the government for both funding and sanctioning is the challenge and the opportunity.”