Glaciologist provides sounds to Chicago art installation about icebergs

In 2000, UChicago Prof. Doug MacAyeal tracked the world’s largest iceberg, called B-15, as it broke off from an ice shelf in Antarctica. MacAyeal placed seismic sensors into the iceberg that recorded the seismic groans created when the chunks scraped past each other. 

Humans can’t hear these seismic spikes, but sped up and set into speakers to vibrate correspondingly, the recordings produce a set of sounds that range from faintly eerie to outright alarming.

For the next month, these creaks will provide the soundtrack to an immersive public art installation along the Chicago River that makes it appear that the famed Art Deco building at 2 North Riverside Plaza has cracked in half, mimicking an iceberg.

The installation, called “White Wanderer,” opened Sept. 7 and aims to bring the realities of climate change in Antarctica to Chicago. The brainchild of Luftwerk, the Chicago-based artistic collaboration of Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, the piece maps the 120-mile crack that formed last year in the Antarctican ice shelf Larsen C before it broke off as a massive iceberg in July 2017.

“I think it’s a wonderful, dramatic piece that really taps the natural curiosity people have about icebergs,” said MacAyeal, a professor in geophysical sciences, who for decades has conducted research on glaciers in Antarctica. “We need to have more people than just scientists advocating and talking to regular people about climate change, and art brings meaning that science alone cannot express.”

Luftwerk hoped to create awareness about climate change and reach people on an emotional level, they said, which MacAyeal’s iceberg recordings help to achieve.

“There is a voice to melting glaciers, and they are creating music in their own way,” said Bachmaier. “Some people might find it disturbing; others might be curious and want to learn more.”

MacAyeal said he was primed to work with the Luftwerk artists by earlier engagement with several UChicago art and science collaborative events and projects. A few years ago, MacAyeal’s graduate student Andrew Malone paired with arts MFA student Meredith Leich on a project called “Scaling Quelccaya,” which mapped Malone’s data from a Peruvian glacier onto the city of Chicago.

“The culture of arts and the sciences overlap and stimulate each other at UChicago,” MacAyeal said.

“White Wanderer” will be on public display at Riverside Plaza until Oct. 1. It also is on view at Navy Pier as part of EXPO CHICAGO through Sept. 17, and included in programming as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial and the city of Chicago’s Year of Public Art.

The project is supported by the environmental advocacy group National Resources Defense Council as well as a Kickstarter campaign.