Losing the Architectural Memory of Arctic Sea Ice

Andrew Atkinson, Artist

Jody Deming, Microbiologist
Georges Kanaan, Scientist

Christine Lee, Artist

Rebecca Rutstein, Artist

A startling manifestation of climate change is the loss of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean from an area one-third the size of the US. Sea ice keeps the sun’s radiation from overheating the planet, but the ice is now caught in a feedback loop exacerbating its demise. Marine bacteria, the smallest and most abundant of Earth’s organisms, live within this threatened habitat. There they face multiple environmental extremes, including the ever-changing architecture of the ice, driven by hourly-to-seasonally fluctuating temperatures. Although sea ice may look solid, it contains an interior liquid network of interconnected, brine-filled veins and channels – the inhabitable space which shrinks in winter and expands in summer. Do sea-ice bacteria forget (short-term) or lose (long-term) memory of this unique architectural home and how to live with its extremes? We are currently exploring this question (with other funding) by considering DNA-based mechanisms of bacterial memory and resilience within sea ice, but without the benefit of alternative ways to understand the ice and its interior liquid networks – its negative and positive spaces for life.

Our team is a collaboration between scientists and artists of multiple practices set out to explore aspects of the fluctuating internal architecture of sea ice that so far have escaped scientific inquiry.

Scientifically, much is known about the temperature and salinity of the brine-filled network within porous sea ice, as well as its inhabitants, but an artistic exploration of how temperature modifies that network represents a novel undertaking. A close collaboration between scientists and artists to explore the concept of sea-ice architectural memory and loss of that memory will further expand the novelty. Our team will generate a publication that explores memory in sea ice, focusing on loss of architectural memory, whether due to winter challenges that exceed thresholds for resilience or loss of the sea-ice habitat itself. This publication will be unusual in how it combines both scientific (ongoing with other funding) and artistic experiments, where the latter include painting, weaving and audio creations that can be accommodated by the online open-access journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. The published paper will provide our initial “exhibiting” space. A museum venue exhibition is also in the works.

The hidden fluctuating architecture of sea ice means that microbes inhabiting these shape-shifting spaces must constantly adjust and navigate new passageways, a challenge ripe to be aided by memory. Is such memory lost as sea ice thins and diminishes in extent? How can we capture the current role of sea-ice microbes in the larger ecosystem, providing nutrients and food at the ice-ocean interface, before it is lost?

As an artist intrigued by hidden networks in the natural world, Rutstein is inspired to learn more about these processes, their seasonal rhythms and the shifting structure of life-filled brine channels – all being altered and increasingly lost with climate change. She will explore and interpret the temperature-induced fluctuations and expansions through the visual language of painting.