Rising 20,310 feet above sea level, Alaska’s Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, and when it is fully visible – a relative rarity since it frequently is enshrouded in cloud – the mass of rock and ice is mesmerizing.

The mountain was out in its full glory when renowned environmental photographer Kerry Koepping was trekking in its foothills a decade ago, but instead of staring up at the stunning mountain, he was transfixed by what he saw beneath his feet. The soft, pillowy tundra, dotted with blueberry bushes and other groundcover, was gathered in strange geometric mounds all along the ridge above the treeline.

He realized these hypnotic patterns in the ground were “polygon hummocks” caused by cyclical melting and refreezing of permafrost – a troubling sign of a warming world. His curiosity about the geometric display overwhelmed him, and he pointed his camera lens downward, capturing images that would give rise to the Arctic Arts Project, of which he is now director.

Artists ‘educate and inspire’ with backing of science

Using visual imagery as a powerful tool, the project helps scientists explain concepts like the troubling phenomenon of melting permafrost. It helps them also inform people who may not realize these captivating mounds of tundra are actually part of a cycle releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The results of those releases include hastening the melting of glaciers, raising sea levels, and bringing floods to Miami and other sun-drenched coastal cities where the tundra is the furthest thing from most people’s minds. 

The project has created an opportunity for Koepping and other artists to allow their work, as the arts project describes it, to “educate and inspire, and to provide an understanding of the evolution of a warming world, through impactful imagery, backed by the most current science.”

Arctic Arts Project photographers travel with science teams around the world, capturing images of sea ice, glaciers, old growth forests, carbon sequestration, forest fires, and other signs of the toll that climate change is taking on the Arctic and other deeply vulnerable locations.

“There are absolutely dramatic visuals that are happening all over the world,” Koepping says.

On one expedition, Koepping’s team sought to provide an atmospheric scientist with visual evidence of methane – a colorless gas. After some contemplation, they ultimately decided to capture images of methane bubbling up in lakes in high alpine and polar regions, freezing in beautiful, exquisite patterns.

“Most people really don’t want to understand 10,000 data bits of any specific thing, but if you can put it in a visual term, that science can come to life,” Koepping says.

“We take the science from a 30,000 foot [perspective] and then try and drill down and get an understanding, not only of what it looks like, and why it’s relevant, but how does it apply?” Koepping says. “Why is methane so much of an issue to somebody in California? To someone in Colorado? In Rio de Janeiro? Why is it relevant to everyone’s life? We’re the interpreters of the science.”

Koepping thinks back to a time he was in Greenland by the Eqi Glacier, watching the glacier face calve off at an unprecedented rate. In the evening, the team retreated to their tents, but the calving continued, with thunderous booms throughout the night: Koepping described them as cannons going off every 10 minutes all night long.

“From a dramatic standpoint, ice loss is huge,” Koepping says. “It can be overwhelming emotionally when our teams are on the ground and seeing something year after year, or even within the context of a season. It’s very riveting to see ice loss in gigatons. You’re just struck by the magnitude of what you’re witnessing.”

Sharing those emotions and the importance of climate change is key to Koepping: “We try to bring the environment or subject to life and really give people an understanding of climate chaos, and, maybe more importantly, how it’s relevant to their own individual lives.”

Antarctica Artists and Writers Collective

All around the globe, artists are capturing their fears, worries, and hopes about climate change through their art.  On the other side of the world, for instance, the Antarctic Artists and Writers Collective is helping to chronicle how climate change is compromising the integrity of the frozen continent. The group showcases the work of National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program alumni. That program brings artists to the southern continent’s scientific research stations to spend time in the field and portray their experiences creatively. They use mediums ranging from visual art to poetry, composition, videography, scientific illustration, graphic novels, writing, and more.

Thirteen previous program participants teamed up to put together a virtual show called “Adequate Earth: Artists and Writers in Antarctica.” It began early in 2021 and is scheduled to conclude in May, though exhibits may stay online beyond the closing date.

Ulrike Heine is Adequate Earth’s curator. Her Ph.D. thesis focused on climate change-related imagery, and in 2018 she curated a climate change related exhibit focusing on the Arctic Ocean.

“We have all the science data, which is so interesting, and it’s so hard for people to get the full picture and to understand what that actually means for their lives,” Heine says. “And art can do a lot. There are so many artistic practices, a whole range and spectrum that can bring up these questions and discuss them in a very different way, an emotionalized way, and a way that’s more tangible, more approachable using visual imagery.”

Helen Glazer is one of the artists participating in the show. She traveled to Antarctica from late 2015 to early 2016 during the austral summer season, exploring ice and rock formations, an ice cave, a penguin colony, and “blood falls” with unusual orange stains on the ice.

“I was constantly just blown away by the immensity of it, and just how utterly alien it is” Glazer says. “It’s so different from any other place that you can be. There are no plants, no trees, and there’s none of the usual landmarks that we use to understand distance … You just realize it’s this experience of vastness, I think [that] was something very memorable.”

Glazer captured over 5,000 images, transforming many of them into 3D pieces, and adding an audio element to some. She emphasizes the importance of art. “If you see this, now you have a mental image, and when you hear about it, it doesn’t feel as distant, doesn’t feel as remote,” Glazer says.

Sending artists into the field with scientists to share their findings isn’t a new idea. Glazer points to early national park surveys, such as the 1871 Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone, where two artists and a photographer accompanied scientists, surveyors, and other team members into the field. “It occurred to people very early on, [even] back in the 19th century, that if they wanted to convince a broader public to preserve places and take care of the environment, that showing them compelling images was going to help,” Glazer says.

“I think artists, writers, musicians, we’re intermediaries,” Glazer says. “We’re getting you to think about the world in a way that maybe is accessible to you and also to just communicate at the same time a respect for what scientists are doing, and how it’s important to keep funding research, and that science helps us understand the world better.”

Anna McKee: Chronicling the beauty of both poles

Anna McKee is an artist who has worked in both Antarctica and the Arctic depicting what she sees and experiences. In the fragile polar regions, that usually includes climate change.

She teamed up with artist Suze Woolf to create “Gathered from the Field; Art Provoked by Climate Research.” While the exhibit at the University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Gallery was disrupted by the pandemic, a virtual walk-through is available online. Woolf’s work includes Bark Beetle books made from tree trunks affected by bark beetles, a species rapidly spreading as a result of climate change and heavily impacting Western forests. Her work showcases the fascinating and beautifully elaborate patterns they leave behind.

The exhibit also included McKee’s “WAIS Reliquary: 68,000 Years,” a room-sized work made of glass, silk, wood, and glacier water, depicting 68,000 years of temperature change. It is based on McKee’s time at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core field camp in 2009-2010, where scientists were drilling an ice core that would ultimately reach 3,405 meters.

After returning from the field, McKee used ampules made of durable borosilicate glass. She filled them with a tiny amount of water from each meter of the ice core – sealing and sewing them to 678 silk panels. Each panel represents 100 years of ice core, and the size of each is correlated with the sample’s isotope measurements, which she describes as “a proxy for temperature” over 68,000 years. Seattle composer and sound artist Steve Peters developed an audio element to accompany the work.

“Gathered from the Field …” also includes some of McKee’s maps and drawings from a 2018 trip to Greenland, where she accompanied researchers out in the field. The scientists collected water samples from the basins they visited, and McKee recently received small amounts of water from those samples to add to her next work. 

“I’m most interested in finding a way for people to interact with these places and a little bit of these topics in a way that is really non-confrontational and non-lecturing, non-judging,” McKee says. “Just like ‘look at this place’ and wanting to just share the beauty of that, the serenity of that, the peace of that …  I’m really interested in not just beauty for beauty’s sake, but in helping people see the beauty in the world.”

Kristen Pope is an Idaho-based freelance writer who frequently covers science and conservation-related topics.