Sounds of the Southern Ocean
NOAA and Oregon State University in Antarctica
Dr. Robert Dziak, Project Leader
In the curator’s preface for the Koehnline Museum of Art’s “Harbour” exhibition catalog, Nathan Harpaz reflected on my experience with public art controversies in graduate school and the process which followed:
Young reacted to these troubling episodes not by creating political images, but by expressing a sincere concern about society’s abdication of responsibility toward the natural world. He believes that human beings are rapidly losing their sense of connectedness to the earth and to one another, with destructive consequences.
With professional experience as a biologist and a continued fascination with nature expressed through art, the issue of human proximity to our surroundings has always been a theme in my work. As much in a physical way – the growth and movement of populations, the limits of natural resources – as in a romantic or, one might say, spiritual one, Nature has been both an abstraction and an inspiration.
In November, 2006, Dr. Robert Dziak of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, invited me to participate in an expedition to the Bransfield Strait along the Antarctic Peninsula. As director of the Center’s acoustic monitoring project, Dr. Dziak has had the continuous support of NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Ocean Exploration Program to collaborate with scientists from Korea detecting previously unknown seafloor volcanic and marine mammal activity, as well as ice movement, in the region. Using sophisticated deep-water “hydrophones,” the team collected and inspected data from previously deployed instruments – set the year before in the several thousand-foot depths – and prepared them for another twelve to fourteen months of work on the ocean floor. Dr. Dziak uses techniques unique in the field, employing a thermocline in water temperature as a natural conduit for the subtlest vibrations and triangulating the information for the exact location and nature of their sources. Everything from earthquakes to whale pods, ice-calving, “scraping” and collisions can be detected and deciphered, rendering, in a way – through sound – a picture of an otherwise invisible world.
Below is Dr. Dziak’s summary of the project:
The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica and serves as a conduit between the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Yet because of severe climatic conditions, much of this ocean basin remains unexplored. The polar regions play key roles in the global environment and one goal of our project is to document linkages between changes to the Antarctic ice sheet and the volcano-tectonic seafloor processes in the region. To meet the challenge for continuous monitoring in this extreme environment, during December 2005 we deployed an array of Autonomous Underwater Hydrophones (AUH). This new ocean-sensor technology uses cold-water capable, deep-ocean hydrophones to provide the first-ever comprehensive record from Antarctica of the sounds generated by moving ice sheets, undersea earthquakes and volcanoes; even vocalizations from large baleen whales. We recovered and redeployed the AUH array in 2006 and our initial data review indicates the hydrophones recorded hundreds of earthquakes from the seafloor spreading centers and submarine volcanoes within the Bransfield Strait, as well as events from the subduction zone off the South Shetland Islands and from throughout the Scotia Sea. Moreover, we have observed harmonic tremor produced by the movement of large icebergs, and have detected the vocalizations of several critically endangered cetacean species.
Some non-seafaring days were spent with the Korean Ocean and Polar Research Institute scientists at their base on King George Island. Marine bird and mammal specialists led excursions to important penguin nesting colonies to gauge the unfortunate decline in their numbers.
The expedition climaxed with a sailed entry into the submerged crater of Deception Island: for now, a quiet volcano, (last erupting in 1967, destroying some scientific stations), with active thermal vents at its base. These vents pour mineral-saturated hot water into the ocean, not only precipitating a multitude of crystallized compounds, but providing a chemo-synthetic foundation for unique life forms in the area. What is particularly interesting about this thermal vent system is its proximity to the surface, interfacing with photosynthetic- energy producing micro-organisms. The latter has never been carefully studied before. Dr. Dziak arranged to send a submersible, remotely operated vehicle to the site to capture video footage and still images that initiated the exploration of this unique phenomenon.
The landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding ocean was harsh and hauntingly beautiful. Long hours were dedicated by the team to data-collecting and analysis, finding strategies for new discovery, the majority of the approach and language of which resided in the objective world: the so-called Scientific Method. But, there is a human story, as well. Ironically enough, as a very detailed and costly plan was developed to reach new places and, perhaps, undiscovered animal species, we were also in an environment where the consequences of human carelessness are dramatically expressed; the ozone layer has been eroded, whale populations are declining, water temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, and massive ice shelves are breaking free and drifting northward. As my previous work had, at times, contemplated the intersection of discovery and fantasy, the naturalist who places himself uncomfortably in a new terrain and attempts to relay his impressions, I experienced this invitation to be a, yet, higher threshold encounter with Nature. The Russian research vessel, Yuzhmorgeologiya, and its Korean and American specialists charted new sea floor activity, ice movements and that of the ocean fauna, but there was evidence of humankind already present by marine and atmospheric changes: artistically speaking, a very rich and urgent intersection.
Video and photographic documentation, writing entries to a contemporaneous interactive blog, close assistance with deep-water sampling and instrument recovery, were all a piece of my participation in the voyage. More important is the legacy of the experience as manifest in subsequent discussions, lectures, art projects and presentations. Britt Salvesen, in her essay on my work at the Koehnline Museum, wrote eloquently about the relationship of science and art:
Science and art both depend upon experimentation, but the status of these disciplines and their end-products are historically and culturally determined. Today, certain social, moral, political, religious, economic and literary discourses contribute to a tendency to oppose science and art. This polarization compromises both pursuits. The artist and the scientist share a concern with the as-yet-visible and unproven; both charge themselves with rendering the new kinds of experience they encounter. And both ultimately emulate the process already and always at work in nature.
This is precisely why I paint and, in the process, attempt to integrate not just subjects of Nature, but something of our complex relationship to it. Dr. Dziak hopes to reassemble his team again, and return to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean soon to explore what may be the largest underwater thermal vent system yet discovered. With the broad and emergent awareness of global warming and it’s environmental consequences, changing life and events in the polar regions of the earth – plus the social and economic factors in our distancing from Nature in general – is a story that must be told; it is as much human, as it is scientific.
Dr. Dziak and his team published a paper on the results of
the expedition in the January 2010 issue of the
JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH.
Tectonomagmatic activity and ice dynamics in the
Bransfield Strait back-arc basin, Antarctica (link)
Authors: Robert P. Dziak, Minkyu Park, Won Sang Lee, Haru Matsumoto, DelWayne R. Bohnenstiehl, and Joseph H. Haxel
In the Acknowledgements, the authors thanked me and my colleagues, B. Hanshumaker, T.-K. Lau, K. Stafford, S. Heimlich, M. Fowler, and S. Yun, for our at-sea support and laboratory assistance.
Robert P. Dziak, NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory,
CIMRS/ Oregon State University,
Newport, OR, 97365
To see more of my photographs (and some by marine mammal specialist, Kate Stafford) from the Sounds of the Southern Ocean, go to Work – Projects Images on this site.
A portion of Andrew Young’s participation in this project was supported by the Illinois Arts Council.