Speaking Substances: Ice

In the 21st century, we are inundated with news about human-induced climate change. But perhaps human-produced media are not the only source of information. What if the best source of news about the planetary effects of environmental damage was the planet itself? This essay is one of a four-part series, Speaking Substances, that considers the stories that might be told by unusual, sometimes nonhuman, but still-eloquent media: Ice, Oil, Bodies, and Rock.


FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND YEARS is a long time in human history. It is a comprehensive epoch, in fact, if we are measuring by the evolution of Homo sapiens 250,000–400,000 years ago. Yet in terms of planetary time 400,000 years is a relative blip. Perhaps this is why it is famously difficult to envision or otherwise represent the temporal scale of the earth outside of the compass of human action and thought. Often these visualizations are keyed to a human scale, such as in Stephen Jay Gould’s well-known metaphor in Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: “Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history” (Gould is adapting a similar trope of embodiment used by John McPhee). Such images represent a characteristically anthropocentric imagination of the inhuman scale of deep time.

Though it may be impossible to completely break from our alignment with the human in trying to imagine global history, we might attempt to reorient our perspective by changing our frames of reference — through an appeal to a sonic rather than a visual set of metaphors, say.

Here is an example of what I mean: in 2014 the Polar Center at Penn State (where I teach literature) presented a sonification of a data set of 400,000 years of Antarctic ice sheet changes. “Sonification” is the process of mapping information to sound — a sonification represents data synthetically, in a manner analogous to visualization, but for the ears instead of the eyes. The Antarctic ice sheet data had been collected by the paleoclimate scientist David Pollard of PSU’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute; it was rendered into sound by music professor and data sonification pioneer Mark Ballora, along with Matthew Kenney, a visual arts MFA. Ballora and Kenney’s production invited the glaciologists who were familiar with the ice sheet figures to experience their data in a provocatively unfamiliar way — to hear it, to discern whether a category shift in the presentation of knowledge induced a new understanding of that information.

For program participants like myself who had not spent years immersed in 400,000 years of Antarctic ice sheet data, the sonification provided a way for us to process big data in a seemingly incommensurate form. In this sense I was reminded of the formalist joke usually credited to Elvis Costello, that writing about music — or in this case, listening to basal ice temperatures — is like dancing about architecture. Costello’s witticism calls attention to what might be considered an absolutist distinction between taxonomic categories, an absence of shared language or other formal scaffolding between forms of artistic expression — at least in his examples. But in the compass of planetary time, or even human time; in the event of the Anthropocene; or even in the case of ice, perhaps we lack the language to describe, or the vision to perceive, or the corpus to absorb information in its own terms. Maybe torqued, perceptual category shifts are more representationally apt — or have more explanatory power — in our Anthropocenic age.

Consider ice. Itself only one incarnation of a substance that takes three seemingly incommensurate forms — liquid, gas, solid — ice is both ephemeral and durable. Ice in the Arctic and Antarctica appears both silent and still, and yet is spectacularly on the move, and not just in epochs of climate crisis: in its vibrancy ice carves valleys, levels mountains, deposits moraines over hundreds of miles. In the polar regions ice groans, cracks, screams, hisses, forms and liquefies in hours. To the Inuit of Kangiqsujuaq, ice provides temporary caves beneath the surface of the ocean into which hunters can crawl to harvest mussels. Ice also tells stories that are hundreds of thousands of years old. Those who study paleoceanography (the history of the ocean) and paleoclimatology (the history of the earth’s climate) can read in ice core samples narratives of past volcanic eruptions, forest fires, rising seas, and flowers.

In telling the story of the West Antarctic ice sheet for Polar Day attendees at Penn State, Ballora and Kenney first selected six different categories of ice sheet information from Pollard’s data sets: floating ice, or ice on the sea; ground ice, or ice resting on the continental earth; total ice; basal temperature, or the temperature of ice at its base, where it meets the earth; solar energy; and sea level. To each category they assigned a different sound, ranging from a “tinny tapping” for floating ice and a “low throbbing” for ground ice, to a “filtered sawtooth” for basal temperatures and “water droplets” for sea level. Variations in area and volume in the ice sheet data sets were represented by adjustments to pitch and amplitude in the sonifications. Ballora and Kenney compressed 400,000 years of data into a 6:50 recording: one second is the equivalent of 1,000 years.

When we listen to this sonification, what do we come to know about Antarctica, or about planetary time? What do we hear, read, see, feel, experience? If climate change has had a radical effect on Arctic ice in recent years — a crisis to which we are urged to attend — then the temporality of our moment of global warming does not even register in the sonification; it is unheard in the larger sweep of the 400 seconds/400,000 years of the recording, Gould’s “stroke of a nail file.” Ballora and Kenney chose sounds that have analogues in the resonances made by water and ice in motion — drops, cracks, shimmers, tinkles. (If they had assigned to the data points, instead, the noise of a dial-up modem, or a Tickle Me Elmo, or cats meowing, or Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola, or a traffic jam, our sonic experience of Antarctica might have been quite different.) Audience responses to the Antarctic data sonification stressed the “eerie,” “alien,” “haunting” qualities of the piece; I thought it sounded like a horror movie soundtrack, which was probably my anthropocenic fear talking. That is because Ballora and Kenney’s sonification of Pollard’s Antarctic data on behalf of the Penn State Polar Center tapped into an issue I have been confronting in my own scholarly work on the literary cultures of polar expeditions: what genres, what forms of literary or textual expression, have been or will be adequate to representing climatic extremity in the Anthropocene.

The Arctic and Antarctica are in the headlines of late. Arctic ice is melting at potentially catastrophic rates as a result of climate change, turning the warm “open polar sea” of 19th-century fancy into an oceanic reality in recent summers. Industrial nations such as the United States are increasingly targeting circumpolar oil and gas reserves for mining in response to human fossil fuel overconsumption. Five nations to date (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US) have laid claim to land and territorial waters in the North Polar region, and thus by extension to any mineral rights in its radius. At the same time, Antarctic missions under the banner of science have been drilling into 15-million-year-old subglacial lakes in search of evidence of life, among other resource-focused investigations on the continent. In unanticipated news, furthermore, a substantial portion of the immense West Antarctic ice sheet is now on the verge of “unstoppable“ disintegration, which will lead to a precipitous rise in global sea levels. However remote and inhospitable Antarctica and much of the Arctic remain for the industrialized world, despite humans’ technological innovations, the news reported from the ends of the earth bears planetary consequences. It is a horror soundtrack by any definition.

While the present attention to polar resources reflects the urgency of climate change and demands on gas and mineral resources, these are not new concerns. Questions of resource identification and management, Arctic and Antarctic preservation and exploitation, and climatic variation have ever been the lede for stories about the polar regions — whether in classical and early modern conceptions of an ultima Thule, or amidst the concentration of 19th- and early 20th-century Norwegian and Anglo-American polar expeditions, or in ecoglobalist conversations today.

But polar resources consist of more than oil and gas — they go beyond the ecological substance of the Arctic and Antarctica regions to encompass philosophical and creative thought. We might consider the textual and visual media produced by ice-going expeditions as polar resources, too. These resources can take the form of cairn messages left in copper cylinders; playbills for shipboard theatricals printed in subzero temperatures in the absolute darkness of an Arctic winter; or an abandoned Antarctic field notebook a century old, restored to view by the ice melt of global warming. What forms of knowledge become imaginative resources in geophysical and climatic extremity? How do they translate to non-polar spaces? And are they any more conceptually utile or mimetically representative than the shimmers, tinkles, or water droplets of the Antarctic ice sheet data sonification?

The poets and novelists of the 19th century, for example, may have turned to the language of the Burkean sublime to frame their imagined encounters with the Arctic and Antarctica, yet actual polar explorers met the unutterable or annihilating aspects of the ice not with the awestruck silence of the sublime but with a density of textual production, in a variety of genres. While present in the land-, ice-, and seascapes of the polar regions, expedition members produced an enormous volume of writing — and, eventually, photography, videography, and many other forms of data and media production — in order to document what they saw, felt, heard, missed, experienced, counted, observed, or lost. These writings complemented the similarly huge output of scientific record-keeping done by polar voyagers, including temperature readings (many of which are presently used in tracking global warming trends), magnetic dip observations, hydrography, geological sampling, zoological collection, and core sampling. In their own way, polar explorers listened to the ice.

Polar spaces are given expression by humans in various forms of writing and other media. In turn, the polar regions themselves might be said to speak. Such expression is shaped by its production at climatic limits. Polar writing and its media — whether in the form of writing or more ephemeral inscriptions, sounds, figures, or images in icebound regions — are Arctic and Antarctic resources, as well, even if they are not the ones currently claimed by fossil fuel–hungry circumpolar nations. Examples might include shipboard newspapers and cairn messages, little-known bodies of writings that were generated in the Arctic and Antarctica with the express design for circulation only within the polar regions themselves, among exceptionally constrained publics constituted largely by the members of the expeditionary ships — such are the materials I am presently writing about in my book The News at the Ends of the Earth: Oceanic Studies and the Ecomedia of Polar Exploration.

We might call the writing that emerges from (and is directed in service to) the Arctic and Antarctica polar ecomedia. The term “ecomedia” has been used by scholars in media studies in recent years in analyzing forms of non-print media, such as film and photography, that offer ecocritical perspectives on the relationship between humans and the natural world. In adapting this term from its media studies origins, my intention is to mark how these forms of polar ecomedia — that is, writing both from within and about the extremity of the polar regions, in the 19th century as well as today — might have special relevance and utility in our anthropocenic moment.

Writing that is about climatic extremity, and that is produced and circulated in climatic extremity, has much to teach us about global life and thought in the Anthropocene. Historical polar expeditions were not particularly successful if measured in terms of their desired outcomes: very many were attended by death and failure, salvaged only by perceptions of valor or endurance. The most consistent products emerging from Arctic and Antarctic missions were not the desired material resources but rather written accounts of their voyages. But if polar expeditions have therefore functioned historically as a mechanism for generating narratives, writing on ice (and about ice) in the Anthropocene may be scarcely more legible than writing on water. Our present planetary moment demands new modes of knowledge. The visual forms of ecomedia emerging from the polar regions today — a polar bear clinging to vanishing ice, a blighted industrial drilling site atop the permafrost — in some ways bear the metaphorical charge of 19th-century racist clichés of the “vanishing” Native, made pathetic, distant, and inevitable in his twilight. The media perspective we get of the polar regions in their moment of exhaustion, of vanishing, has not yet found a narrative frame sufficient to its oceanic and planetary contours.

The contemporary sound artist Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, whose composition Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica offers what he calls “an acoustic portrait of a rapidly changing continent,” is responding to the same impulse that governed the Penn State Polar Center’s ice sheet data sonification. “Ice is an archive of data from the planet’s hidden past,” Miller writes in The Book of Ice, “preserved and ready for playback with the right devices.” Polar ecomedia are one such set of devices for listening anew to the to archive of human toil and tragedy — and nonhuman processes of accumulated and diminishing ice — that comprises the news at the ends of the earth.


Hester Blum is the author of The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (UNC Press, 2008).