Visitors to the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow will see an ampoule of Antarctic air from 1765 as the centerpiece of a new display that illustrates the hidden histories buried in polar ice.
Wayne Binitie has been working with scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) for the past five years, drilling, analysing, and preserving ice cylinders from deep below the ice sheet that record previous climate change.
These ice cores have allowed Binitie to display the purest possible air trapped in ice from another such moment, just before modern humanity began its unwitting destruction of the atmosphere, the stark consequences of which are now being faced, in Glasgow, at what is widely acknowledged to be a pivotal moment for the planet.
The Glasgow Science Centre’s Polar Zero display includes a cylindrical glass sculpture encasing the air that was accurately taken from 1765, the year many historians consider to mark the start of the Industrial Revolution. A second cylinder contains an ice core with small air bubbles caught as snow fell and compacted, revealing the alarming rate of rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide since that date.
“The scale of the topic is so overwhelming and complex that it can feel distant, even apocalyptic,” says Binitie, a PhD student at the Royal College of Art who is financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. “People require something tangible to grasp, something that bridges the gap.”
Dr. Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist who was in charge of mining the ice for the BAS, says it is possible to drill out ice from a certain epoch. “Year after year, snow falls in Antarctica, yet no melting occurs. As a result, the snow accumulates and crushes all of the years of snow beneath it. We’re drilling further and deeper into the past, much like counting the rings on a large tree.
“What helps is that every now and then we know that a particular volcano erupted in a specific year, and we may be able to find evidence of that.” Using our drills to find a specific year isn’t as difficult as you would think.”
According to Graham Dodd of global engineering specialists Arup, putting together an installation based on an ampoule of air and a melting ice core proved to be a fascinating technical challenge. “Exhibiting an ice core without it melting completely is a technical feat that necessitates precise calculations and creative thinking to build the appropriate level of insulation while still allowing visitors to get up close to the ice.”
Visitors to Polar Zero may hear ancient air bubbles pop as the ice core emerges from its insulated tube, which blends with Binitie’s immersive soundscape of music and natural noises. They can even touch and taste the iced water. It’s a multimodal experience at a time when “asking what it means to touch and be in touch with the Earth” “seems more urgent than ever before,” he says.