A crackle, a crackle, drops falling into the water. This is what it looks like when a mountain glacier melts.
“We wanted to make climate change audible. And not in remote areas, but in fact right next to it. And not as abstract data, but quite physically and sensually. So just like you really listen to a sick body with a stethoscope, we wanted to listen to the glacier. And what is fascinating with the glacier is that you really hear what is happening here and now.
This is Ludwig Berger, Alsatian sound artist. Together with students and professors from ETH Zurich, he transformed the sounds of the Swiss Morteratsch Glacier into a sound collage. Troops traveled to the Ice Tongue a total of six times, leaving special microphones freezing or holding them in puddles. Berger also places himself in the tradition of glaciologists, that is to say researchers on glaciers.
“There are actually images like this – around the turn of the century, around 1900 – where glaciologists really tried to listen to the glacier with such long listening devices. And nowadays there are glaciologists who also use underwater microphones to determine, for example, the melting of sea glaciers, so depending on the frequency and volume of these sounds, you can then determine how much and in what way the glacier is melting.
Glaciers, symbols of climate change
Art and science merge on the glacier – not just at Ludwig Berger. In 2021, British artist Emma Critchley was inspired by masses of ice to create a video installation for the Venice Biennale, with music by Oscar-winning film composer Nicolas Becker.
The Swiss art foundation Pro Helvetia has even announced grants to work with glacier researchers. Culture and media specialist Dominik Schrey is currently examining these relationships:
“My initial thesis would be that glaciers play a triple role in the current situation. Namely that they are on the one hand symbols of climate change, indicators or sensors of climate change and also archives of the history of climate. For the ice to contain information about how the climate has changed over very, very long periods of time.
Schrey teaches at the University of Passau and is currently a member of the Linz University of Art and Design in Vienna. Cooperation between glacier research and art has a long tradition.
“The beginning of this global retreat of glaciers, which continues to this day… around 1850, coincides with the time when glaciers were first photographed. It also coincides with the beginning of more or less systematic scientific observation of glaciers.
Samuel Birmann photographed, but above all painted glaciers. Here a watercolor of him from 1823.© picture alliance / akg-images
As early as 1820, the Swiss landscape artist Samuel Birmann photographed glaciers, which also aroused the interest of scientists. When photography was still in its infancy, the first artists dragged their heavy equipment into the icy heights.
The Bavarian geodesist Sebastian Finsterwalder took the first survey photos at the end of the 19th century – and thus demonstrated the shrinking of alpine glaciers. Finsterwalder recognized the potential of these images for audiences – if you edit them appropriately.
“Finsterwalder commissioned a mountain painter, Rudolf Reschreiter, to copy his measurement photographs. And these images were then also exhibited in the Alpine Museum in Munich. On which one can see the advance and especially the decline of the Vernagtferner. And you can read about it in the newspaper reviews of the time, how impressive contemporaries obviously found that you can see these processes in these images, ”explains Dominik Schrey.
Fascinating photos of glaciers
For a long time, we can call up loads of glacier photos with just one click on the Internet. But they still fascinate. Dominik Schrey believes that images in particular have shaped our current understanding of climate change.
“Because, of course, images and especially these before/after comparisons and serial images are much less abstract than curve diagrams, than complex climate models. And in this way, they help us to make tangible in the first place something that is otherwise elusive to our perception.
Researchers reconstruct the climate of previous centuries from ancient layers of ice in the depths of glaciers. You can compare the data with today’s data. It is also the basis of the realization that the current climate change is of human origin. But the deep climate records are under threat: global warming is causing the ice that was once believed to be eternal to thaw.
Margit Schwikowski of the Swiss Paul Scherrer Institute found last year during a borehole at Grand Combin in the Valais Alps that the so-called signatures, i.e. traces at depth, were already blurred.
A sound archive of glaciers for the future
“We already had a shorter drill core of this glacier from 2018. We found the signatures there, as we would expect. And then, two years later, that is no longer the case. “Over those two years, so much meltwater has seeped in and destroyed the signature. And that shows us how sensitive these glaciers are. So there’s such a high temperature event over a period of two weeks which can take its toll.”
In just two weeks of the hot summer of 2019, the Alps lost 800 million tons of ice. Glaciologists have calculated it. According to forecasts, the majority of the Alpine glaciers will have disappeared by the end of this century.
So the sounds of sound artist Ludwig Berger will have a documentary value in addition to their artistic value.
“At the end of the day, it’s also about creating a kind of sound archive for the future. Because these sounds will be gone in maybe 150 years.
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