CHICAGO — In July, a portion of the ice shelf in Antarctica known as the Larsen C calved, producing an iceberg the size of Delaware — one of the largest ever observed. The scope of the break, which fractured along a growing crack over 120 miles long, is difficult to envision, and its implications even tougher to understand. While climate change may not have directly caused the break, it is an undeniable wakeup call to a potential future of rapidly collapsing ice shelves that precede sharp rises in sea levels.
Chicago-based artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, who collaborate under the name Luftwerk, are making that call heard — literally, through a new sound installation that amplifies the noises of an iceberg breaking, as recorded by Douglas MacAyeal, a professor of geophysical science at the University of Chicago. “White Wanderer” — a name that refers to the Larsen C — occupies the courtyard of Two North Riverside Plaza and sends haunting, mysterious murmurs and trills out to the 30,000 people who pass it daily. The project actually began months prior to the breaking of the ice shelf, in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, so it developed with trepidation, in tandem with scientists’ mounting anticipation.
The sound flows from four speakers that perch on the first-floor ledge of the art deco skyscraper; aside from these and some informational signage, only a discrete vinyl application on the building’s facade lets you know this is an artwork, rather than an alien din that suggests an ominous disturbance to the city’s rhythm. The black-and-white vinyl piece extends 70 feet along the wall, designed as a 1:900 scale representation of the Larsen C’s crack. Luftwerk also created prints of a pattern inspired by the crack as well as a vinyl record, which were given to supporters of the project’s Kickstarter campaign.
It’s the sound component that’s the captivating center of “White Wanderer.” A seven-minute-long score that loops for most of the day, it resembles, at times, a large sea creature groaning, punctuated by bubbling noises and distant crackling. At other moments, it recalls the whir of helicopter blades in the distance or an accelerating car. Most startling are thumps that sound like muffled clarions, which are simply unnerving, but fitting.
These are not the sounds of the Larsen C break, of which no audio recordings exist, but of the very same processes that happened in 2005 to another giant iceberg that had calved from the Ross Ice Shelf. MacAyeal had affixed seismometers to iceberg B-15 two years prior to measure the low-frequency vibrations of its broken pieces scraping each other and tumbling into the water; he made these available to Luftwerk to edit and mix. The pair’s reinterpreted, seven minute track compresses and accelerates what would otherwise be six inaudible hours of seismic signals into a listenable “soundtrack for climate change,” as the artists describe it.
“This mournful sound is a warning that humans in cities like New York and Shanghai need to listen to and respond to,” MacAyeal told Hyperallergic. “It’s a warning that if this ice continues to break up and flow into the ocean, their cities will be flooded.”
As a glaciologist, MacAyeal is able to identify the source of each sped-up sound: thumping moans are really iceberg tremors; zooming noises arrive from gliding glaciers; metallic plops are actually ice quakes; and chirps are the surprising babel of ice riffs breaking in succession — a chorus that MacAyeal likes to call “monkey laughing.”
But to the untrained ear, these noises could seem like part of the urban soundscape, only they’re cinematic and foreboding. The soundtrack nearly blends in with the urban noise of a passing “L” or from the surrounding traffic, but Luftwerk has composed it so that it is distinct enough to make you glance up from your phone and stop in your tracks.
“We wanted to create an ebb and flow — almost a dialogue with the ambient sounds of the city,” Gallero told Hyperallergic. “We wanted it to be a call and response but to have its own voice.”
As time marches on, the breaking of the Larsen C in the remote Weddell Sea may become ever-more distant to those of us who aren’t monitoring glacial changes. NASA, for one, is keeping an eye on them, and a few weeks ago shared satellite images of the ice shelf that suggest new rifts may be forming. The eerie sounds that rumble now in downtown Chicago are a visceral reminder of a looming calamity; like the familiar hubbub of a city, these everyday vibrations can precede something terrible.