Polar zero exhibition opens at Glasgow Science Centre

Brad Ryan Former UKIMEA Press Officer,London
29 September 2021

Polar Zero, a new immersive science-engineering-art exhibition will open at the Glasgow Science Centre this weekend, injecting an artistic and cultural dimension to the climate negotiations at the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).

The exhibition is a collaboration between the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Arup and the Royal College of Art (RCA) is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The Royal College of Art’s Wayne Binitie is an AHRC-funded PhD student and the artist behind Polar Zero. His work is inspired and informed by the urgent need to address the climate crisis.

At a time of accelerating global warming, rapid melting of glaciers and rising sea levels Polar Zero invites us to pause and reflect on humanity’s impact on our past, present and future climate.

A cylindrical glass sculpture encases Antarctic air from the year 1765.

The centrepieces of the exhibition are a cylindrical glass sculpture encasing Antarctic air from the year 1765 – the date that scientists say predates the Industrial Revolution – and an Antarctic ice core containing trapped air bubbles that reveal a unique record of our past climate.

The artworks utilise BAS’ Antarctic ice cores (cylinders of ice drilled out of an ice sheet or glacier) no longer required for research. The ice cores contain information about past temperature, and many other aspects of the environment. Crucially, the ice encloses small bubbles of air that contain a sample of the atmosphere – from these it is possible to measure the past concentration of gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere.

1765 encases an air sample extracted from an Antarctic ice core and preserved within the sculpture. This air connects us with a pivotal moment in the Earth’s history when human ingenuity created the Industrial Revolution and the fossil fuel age began. BAS ice-core laboratories reveal 1765 as a crucial date after which human activity began to fundamentally accelerate the growth of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Arup’s engineering expertise was critical to realising Polar Zero. This is the first time that anyone has attempted to extract ancient air from an ice core and encase it within a glass sculpture. Exhibiting an ice core without it melting completely is a technical feat that requires precise calculations and creative thinking to construct the right level of insulation while still allowing the visitors to get up close to the ice.

Visitors to Polar Zero will experience the sound of ancient air bubbles popping as the ice core emerges from an insulated tube. As it drips and melts away it captures the fragility of the Antarctic Peninsula ice. Audio recordings of these ancient gases escaping from ice cores have been incorporated by the artist into a soundscape that evokes the sense of time ticking away, completing this intimate multi-sensory experience. 

Fragments from Ice Stories - personal anecdotes, memories and oral testimonies from the national and international scientists and experts whose lived experiences of the Arctic and Antarctic – hint at the science that inspires the artworks.

Ice core Polar Zero Ice core Polar Zero
As the Antarctic ice core melts, visitors will hear the sound of ancient air bubbles popping.

Artist Wayne Binitie, said:
“About 5 or 6 years ago I formed a unique relationship with BAS and Arup. Our collaboration involves artistic creativity, ice core science and advanced engineering. It’s my hope that people who experience these works will gain a better understanding of humanity’s impact on the natural environment and its climate systems.”

Arup Fellow, Graham Dodd, said:
“Creating Polar Zero has been a fascinating technical challenge. Central to the exhibition is the interplay of art, science and engineering and the collaboration gave us a tremendous opportunity to do something truly innovative. We hope visitors will leave inspired by the ambition of artists, scientists and engineers in working together to highlight the urgent need to address the impact of human activity on our planet.”

BAS Glaciologist Dr Robert Mulvaney, said:
“Our ice core research reveals the human impact on our climate. This research collaboration with Wayne will, I hope, encourage people to think about the past, present and future. It has been a journey of discovery for artist, scientist and engineers, involving high levels of creativity that I’ve found very exciting. Exchanging ideas in the ice core lab or over a coffee was stimulating and I hope that people visiting Polar Zero get a sense of that. Antarctic ice is an archive of the Earth’s hidden climate history. The skill of the artist is in helping us tap into human emotion to provoke curiosity, action and hope for the future.”

Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC Executive Chair, said:
“COP26 is an invitation for all of us to rethink our way of life. When the arts and the sciences come together, they have the power to stir something inside of us and inspire lasting change. This exhibition will demonstrate what we can achieve when we use the arts to inspire people to connect to the human emotion of climate change, driving us all to build a greener, more sustainable future.”

Dame Jo da Silva, Global Sustainable Development Leader, Arup said:
“Art is very important because it can encapsulate a lot of complexity. With a subject like climate change – which is so incredibly complex – we need to engage emotionally. When you look at a piece of art that has been stimulated by climate change, it sets your mind turning over and you contemplate things in a different way.”

Polar Zero is made possible by funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

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