NASA Operation IceBridge 

By Robb/NASA Goddard

NASA invited me to join their Operation IceBridge, an airborne science mission that has been mapping ice changes at both poles for the past decade. I tagged along with them in the fall of 2016 on flights over Antarctica, and then again in the spring of 2017 over Greenland and parts of Arctic Canada. Over the span of 12-hour flights, we flew only 1,500 feet above glaciers, sea ice, and mountain ranges.

 

I was privileged to witness an entirely new perspective of these icy environments, and one that few people have ever seen. For most of us, the polar ice sheets are just giant white spots on a map. (And indeed, they sometimes look like that from the air!). 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, the planet has been shedding sea ice at an average annual rate of 13,500 square miles since 1979, the equivalent of losing an area of sea ice larger than the state of Maryland every year. But the melt is speeding up. The rate at which the whole of Antarctica is shedding ice, for instance, 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.

 

Some of the drawings inspired by this experience were born from photographs taken from the window of NASA’s flying laboratory. But other material came from cameras that are fixed to the belly of the plane, pointing downward. These images are one of the mapping tools IceBridge uses to track ice changes over time. So, in a way, these drawings represent the body of evidence that help scientists understand how climate change is affecting our planet.

 

My proximity to NASA scientists allowed me to ask endless questions about what we were seeing and how they were measuring it. This experience informed and elevated my own practice of observing ice, and in turn, my drawing technique evolved toward heightened precision and nuance.

The confounding and sometimes dizzying perspective of the imagery nods to the impossibility of grasping the size of these places. Even after logging 40,000 miles over 95 hours in the air, it's still difficult to comprehend the vastness of polar ice and the rate at which it is disappearing. Climate change, too, can feel like an overwhelming abstraction. While it is arguably the biggest challenge of our time, it’s also one of the hardest stories to tell. This series is my attempt at portraying the consequences of the global field experiment humans are conducting by warming our planet. The collection is a portrait of accelerated loss—and a clarion call for faster action against that loss.  

 

Like orbiting astronauts who are overcome by Earth’s fragility and moved to protect it, my drawings inspired by this experience are invitations to witness a perspective on our planet that is connected to both the exacting beauty of science and the terrifying urgency of climate change. The series will make up my solo show "Overview", at Winston Wächter Fine Art in New York this October-December, 2018.  See the drawings here. 

For more information on the campaign, visit their wesbite: NASA Operation Icebridge