The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue
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Communicating Climate Change Through Art

I consider it my life’s mission to convey the urgency of climate change through my work. I’ve traveled to the polar regions to capture the unfolding story of ice melt, and to the equator to document the resultant rising seas. My motivation has always been to evoke an emotional connectedness to these dramatic, fragile places and to forge a sense of stewardship. Because few people are able to experience these remote and extreme landscapes firsthand, my large scale drawings physically and emotionally envelop the viewer, facilitating both intimacy and awe.

I rely on other specialists to make rational, data-driven arguments for why we must take action to preserve our ecosystems, but through my work, I try to make an appeal on a more elemental level. According to behavioral psychologists, much of our decision-making comes from our emotions. Art has a special ability to tap into emotions (that’s scientifically proven!). For this reason I chose to convey the beauty of these places at the forefront of climate change, as opposed to the devastation. If you can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps you will be inspired to protect and preserve them.

My most recent body of work began two years ago, when NASA invited me to join Operation IceBridge, an airborne science mission that has been mapping ice changes at both poles for the past decade. I joined them on several flights over Antarctica and the Arctic. The aircrafts were equipped with a whole suite of instruments including lasers, radars, an infrared sensor, digital photography, and a gravimeter, which measures gravity. Flights were 12 hours on average, and we flew only 1500 feet above glaciers, sea ice, and mountain ranges, which sometimes soared above us on either side. It was spectacular.

For most of us, the polar ice sheets are two giant white spots on a map. But the IceBridge scientists and engineers know that there’s rapid change occurring beneath the surface—a complex interplay of freshwater rivers, valleys of bedrock, and warmer ocean waters eating away at glaciers from beneath.

As our climate changes, ice melt is speeding up. The rate at which the whole of Antarctica is shedding ice has tripled over the past decade. These IceBridge missions are collecting critical information that can tell us how this ice loss is occurring, and what these changes mean for sea level rise and coastal communities around the world. Findings from the project are numerous and some of them are, to me, pretty mind boggling. For example, hidden underneath Greenland’s ice sheet, they discovered a massive canyon that dwarfs the Grand Canyon! But the most significant data from the project have shown that the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet has likely entered an unstable state and may now be in irreversible decline. The timing of the retreat is unknown, but it’s a powerful reminder that we have entered a new era with significant changes on the horizon.

There is, of course, all kinds of devastating news about climate change. The last five years have been the hottest on record and extreme weather is wreaking havoc all over the world. The most recent and sobering Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that we have much less time to avoid climate crises like extreme drought, crop failure, millions of climate refugees, famine, etc., than we thought we did when we signed the Paris Agreement. And now the US is faced with an administration that ignores these problems—contributing to environmental decline with their denial of it.

Zaria Forman, (Work in progress) Jakobshavn Glacier, Greenland, 69° 47' 31.092"N 49° 47' 31.7076"W, April 29th, 2017, 2018. Soft pastel on paper, 68 x 102 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Yet I feel more hopeful now than I ever have! Why? Because action on climate change has become unstoppable. We’re not moving fast enough yet, but we are moving in the right direction, and we actually have a lot to celebrate. First, there’s the Paris Accord. Yes, the Trump administration is attempting to pull us out of it, but that actually galvanized the rest of the world (including most major US corporations) to reaffirm their commitment to it. We will also see ambitions raised during the next UN climate summit this September. Green energy has become far more affordable and accessible in the last decade. Climeworks has created the world’s first commercial carbon capturing technology. The Green New Deal has become a global movement in the past few months. There is worldwide student activism thanks to Greta Thunberg. Over 1,000 institutions (including NYC) have divested in fossil fuels, totalling over 8 trillion dollars! New economic research shows that taking fast action on climate change will not only save us money, but actually create a lot of wealth—a recent study showed that fast decarbonization could add 26 trillion dollars to the global economy by 2030!

Real solutions exist, and we’re already seeing the benefits of them.

I think it’s an effective tactic to emphasize the positive. A bombardment of terrifying news is paralyzing, but focusing on the positive is empowering. So that’s what I try to do in my work—to celebrate what is still here, and to give viewers the sense that it is still possible to do something to protect this Earth that sustains us.


Zaria Forman

Zaria Forman makes large scale pastel drawings documenting climate change.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues