At the interface of science and art

Visual art and data have combined to reveal the effects of climate change in the Arctic, and to create a breathtaking exhibition.

The clue is in the name of Team Shrub - the School of GeoSciences' student-led tundra researchers: they just love nature. And it's a love that goes beyond work that aims to understand how global change alters plant communities and ecosystem processes.

"The Arctic is experiencing dramatic change," says team member Sandra Angers-Blondin, a PhD student in Atmospheric and Environmental Studies. "There is overwhelming evidence that it's due to a warming climate. So our work is really about discovering the mechanistic pathways leading to this change that would allow for quantitative predictions."

Visual art

But in the throes of their research, the team was struck by the beauty of their subject, leading to a project that aims to use visual art to communicate the team's efforts to a public audience. 'Arctic from Above' sees digital artists and motion designers collaborate with the team's global change ecologists and the students to create visually striking, creative interpretations of research data, and to record the juxtaposition of beauty and a landscape under threat. 

"As scientists, it was very exciting to see what we regard as our daily work - including the tools and instruments we use - become a piece of art," says Sandra. "It made us reflect on the significance of our research."

Motives and aims

The results of the collaboration have now been turned into a photographic exhibition, initially displayed in the University's Main Library foyer, and now available online. It is hoped the images will create an accessible, informative and engaging way for the public to connect with and understand the motives and aims of the team's research. 

The exhibition covers seven categories: coastlines; heritage; landscapes; permafrost; plants; science; and wildlife. Here is a selection of the photos from each category with notes from the team:

1. Coastlines: Slump into the sea. Photo: Jeffrey T. Kerby

"Arctic landscapes are degrading. As permafrost (permanently frozen ground) thaws and coastlines erode, sediments are transported out into the ocean, turning the turquoise water grey. Rates of coastal erosion have always been high along this particular coastline оn Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island, but they may be accelerating in recent years as the sea-ice-free period becomes longer, more intense storms batter the ice-free coasts in summer, and warmer temperatures contribute to faster rates of permafrost thaw."

2. Landscapes: Northern lights. Photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin

"The Aurora Borealis (northern lights) is a beautiful natural phenomenon that happens when charged solar particles enter the atmosphere. We witnessed this display one night in Umiujaq, Northern Québec. Often our trips to the Arctic happen at the peak of summer and the midnight sun stops us from seeing the northern lights flickering above our heads, but an extended field season in August rewarded us with the light display almost every night."

3. Heritage: Solstice traditions. Photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin

"To celebrate the summer solstice on 21 June, researchers burned a giant mountain goat effigy in a night-long party on the shores of Kluane Lake."

4. Permafrost: Ice wedges. Photo: Jeffrey T. Kerby

"Ice wedges form over thousands of years along cracks in the ground. Each summer cracks fill with water. Each winter this water freezes and expands the cracks. Year on year, this cycle creates wedges of ice, sometimes penetrating deep into the soil. On the surface ice wedges often create five-sided polygon shapes, around 10 metres in diameter that can pattern the landscape for hundreds of kilometres along coastal floodplains."

5. Plants: Shrubs. Photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin

"Shrubs are woody plants which, just like trees, lay down annual rings of wood in their stem as they grow. In tundra shrubs the rings are so narrow that they can only be observed and measured under a microscope. The amount of wood produced in a year depends on the growing conditions, and we generally find that warming in the Arctic promotes growth."

6. Science: Drone in the mist. Photo: Gergana N. Daskalova

"A quadcopter drone takes off on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for the first time in 2017. Though the conditions on our first day on the island were far from suitable for collecting drone data for scientific purposes, the atmospheric mist and moving sea ice made for a mesmerising view, all the more impressive when seen from above."

Team Shrub Arctic from Above : Wildlife
7. Wildlife: Polar bears. Photo: Anne D. Bjorkman

"Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are the iconic animals of Arctic climate change. Here, two bears make their way across the melting sea ice off of the coast of Ellesmere Island in search of food. Face-to-face contact is not advised, as the photographer Anne Bjorkman can attest to from personal experience."

Alumni support

The team was supported by an alumni-funded grant, without which Sandra believes the project would never have happened:

The generous donations of alumni  have allowed us to reach out to professional artists and science communicators to forge what will hopefully be long-lasting partnerships. In concrete terms, the grant allowed the production of professional short clips explaining our research, and artistic interpretations of our scientific data. As well as being an important part of our digital art exhibition for this project, these clips can be repurposed for use in future public science talks, and are probably the most valuable content that would not have been possible to create without financial support.

Sandra Angers-Blondin

Related links

Team Shrub

Arctic from Above exhibition

Student Experience Grants