By Erica Dingman
Marco Tedesco envisions a scientific narrative that far surpasses the confines of conferences and the annals of academic journals. As a scientist who studies the Greenland ice sheet, his annual trek to the region informs his research and teaching at City College of New York (CCNY). Yet, Tedesco’s wanderlust extends beyond academia, embracing a passion for the arts. His intellectual curiosity and desire to communicate with a wider audience inspired the interdisciplinary endeavor called Polar Seeds, drawing on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet to create a multisensory website and exhibit through visualization and sonification. Sonifications are best heard, but by way of explanation it is the use of non-verbal audio graphing as a means of conveying information.
Like so many scientists engaged in climate-related research, Tedesco strives to communicate his findings on remote sensing of snow and ice and climate modeling through seemingly “unconventional” means. “Every time I talk about Polar Seeds, I stress about the relationship that we need to build between the artist and the scientist. It doesn’t have to do with understanding what art means for science and science means for art. It’s more about communication,” he says.
His guiding research question focuses on the evolution of hydrology of the Greenland ice sheet, and Tedesco investigates the extent of ice melt—how much it has changed, where the water is going, and what impact it will have. “It is a major driver of sea level rise,” he notes. However, he alludes to the fact that boring scientific presentations impede engagement with interesting and critical content. Tedesco “grew up in an environment where art is like bread and butter.” He notes that in Italy “we are surrounded by art the same as we are by McDonalds in the United States.”
The transition from traversing the treeless grandeur of the Greenland ice sheet to the inspiration for Polar Seeds was seamless but required collaboration with the right mix of people for the project to succeed. Accordingly, Tedesco formed an interdisciplinary team of colleagues– Professors and multimedia designers Ina Saltz and Ethan Ham, and musicologist Jonathan Perl–receiving a CCNY grant to create a multi-perceptual experience to help people understand the reality of melting ice. The project took skill, discipline, and a passion for experimentation.
Perl, who met all of those criteria, was the sound design master instrumental in bringing forth the sonifications that Tedesco envisioned. “I never felt the link between communicating something with sonifications was a big obstacle,” said Tedesco. “When I think of many cultures, they use music to propagate information through generations.” Together, Perl and Tedesco brainstormed, exchanging information from the particulars of sonification and software to explanations about the albedo time series. Albedo is the capacity of a surface to reflect or absorb solar radiation. As snow and ice melt, they become less reflective and lead to more melting.
The relationship between the two was tantamount to a fine-tuned piano that Tedesco describes as an “exceptionally intimate collaboration,” which was imperative to the project’s success. “John, as a scholar, just put himself naked in front of things he didn’t know but wanted to learn.” Perl, whose attention to detail required countless hours of research and studio time to find the appropriate technical tools, applied his sense of sound aesthetics to create soundscapes driven by Tedesco’s scientific data. Their collaboration resulted in a number of recordings, some of which were pure sonifications, while the longer 51-minute tape loop played as ambient music for the exhibit.
When the exhibit opened at CCNY in Harlem, Tedesco was enthused by the attendance of people from the neighborhood who came to experience things they never thought they could understand. It was another means of driving climate change information. “It was not just data and numbers,” he says. There are multiple ways of understanding information, each of the senses perceiving it differently. For instance, to explain the effect of albedo, a video showed two pieces of melting ice, one dark and one clear. The darker piece turned to a pool of water faster than the clear piece. The viewer came away with a clear understanding of the albedo effect. The longer tape loop was effective in providing the auditory impact; shorter sonifications could be heard through headphones. “This was really my ultimate goal,” Tedesco said, to know melting of the Greenlandic ice sheet and “to serve the community around City College,” the students and their parents.
However, the audio presentation was not all that he desired. His goal, to create a soundproof corridor with the sound cranked high, was beyond the scope of the venue. Tedesco wanted to know how the audience would perceive auditory information, and how it would translate into knowledge.
The soundproof corridor is yet to be built, but when he gives talks accompanied by the sonifications, he proclaims: “I will crank up the volume of my presentation, and people will jump on their seats.” He chuckles with pleasure, but then explains that after the initial shock, audience members begin to capture the meaning of the sounds with further clarification. “You realize you don’t have to measure it rationally. You really record it within you in a way that remains marked as an exceptional thing—as something screaming in your head or blinding you with a flashlight. It’s a sensorial experience so it is recorded differently in our brain and remains such.”
I can attest to this, listening to Albedo Choir Vs Melt Rate Geiger. The sound of a Geiger counter overlaid with the soothing harmonization reminiscent of a church choir, the sonification builds in tempo, giving way to a grating crescendo—then coming to an abrupt stop. My heart rate is noticeably increased, and I am left with a deathly feeling as I sit there in silence. There isn’t an overt political message, but the soundscape takes on tacit meaning.
When our conversation turns to the political landscape, Tedesco tells me that the Arctic is becoming both a socio-economic and geopolitical experiment. Minerals once buried under ice are increasingly accessible, shipping lanes now open earlier and for longer periods of time, and geo-engineering as a means of manipulating an ecosystem have added additional layers of concern. At first, scientists felt the pressure of skeptics who were trying to destroy all the scientific evidence of climate change. Now, the dynamics are far more complex. “It’s like a 3-sided coin,” he says. In addition to invalidating skeptic’s rhetoric, another discourse has emerged that touts science as a cure for economic woes; Tedesco indicates that this view “is not really what we were doing this for.”
Completing this three-sided coin is the pure science side, which seeks answers to question that need to be addressed. This community is more focused on trying to improve things. “The scientists I work with do care about the fact that there’s something that might be done,” Tedesco says. At this intersection, Polar Seeds is making a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of Arctic environmental change, marrying the rigor of pure science with a passion for connecting with a larger audience. Perhaps, other like-minded folk will emerge, who in turn will focus on improving the political landscape that affects the natural landscape. The exhibit is now closed, but you can experience many of the effects and gain knowledge at the website Polar Seeds.
Erica Dingman is a Fellow at the World Policy Institute and Director of Arctic in Context.
[Photo courtesy of Marco Tedesco]