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Diane Burko: Visualizing Arctic Transitions

Diane Burko: Visualizing Arctic Transitions

September 4, 2014

By Erica Dingman

Climate scientists and artists engaged in chronicling new phenomenon for the purpose of affecting change seem to have a natural affinity for one another’s work. Yet rarely does one come across an artist as attune to the scientific community as Diane Burko. This is evidenced in her ongoing series of paintings exploring the depths of environmental change in the Polar Regions.

At the same time, the scientific community has embraced her visual panoramas as an effective means of communicating scientific evidence to a broader public and potentially affecting policy change. Burko notes, “Scientists tell me that my images help to communicate what statistics and charts prove. They see paintings and photography as a way to reach the general public and educate them.”

Lest we need reminding, the rate of Arctic warming is twice to four times that of the rest of the world. Permafrost is melting, contributing to the inescapable emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. And once a year, beginning usually at the end of August, media is abundant with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual reporting on the seasonal height of Arctic ice melt. ,First expressed by Sheila Watt-Cloutier in 2004, Arctic warming should be considered as the veritable ‘canary in the coalmine.’

Communicating this reality, however, has been an uphill battle to the extent that entire conferences are devoted to preparing scientists to better communicate their findings to the public at large and user-friendly websites developed to cut through scientific jargon that few can comprehend. A simple Google search of “communicating climate change conferences” brings forth a plethora of results.

Yet the arts can often communicate what words simply cannot. Indeed, Diane Burko’s application of paint to canvas surpasses our traditional understanding of vocabulary, confronting the viewer with real data that elicits nothing less than a visceral reaction. Her large-scale paintings, inspired by her personal aerial photographs taken while in flight over Arctic landscapes and those of polar scientists, unites traditional landscape painting with technical data, compelling the viewer to scrutinize the realities of climate change.

Diane Burko: Visualizing Arctic Transitions

“Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2205” 2011

As a self-proclaimed ‘artist activist,’ Burko became interested in the veracity of climate change in 2006. Coinciding with her increasing interest in how landscapes had changed, Al Gore’s record-making documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, heightened Burko’s desire to “do something to protest” and alert people through the “language of art.”

This self-described epiphany led her to contact the US Geological Society to further educate herself about the effects of climate change. She had traveled to Alaska in 1999 during her artistic exploration of volcanoes, but it was the dramatic changes to polar ice conditions that inspired her to document Arctic environmental change with the precision of an eagle-eyed investigator. As a terminal student, she read avidly about glaciologists like Ellen Mosley Thomson—who devotes her life’s work to studying the earth’s complex climate history through the retrieval of ice cores from the ice sheets of the Antarctic and Greenland.

But it was the “phenomenon of the Petermann glacier’s ice shelf breaking away in 2010 and [that it was equal to] 4 Manhattans,” coinciding with plans to travel to the Arctic Circle that set off a deeper interest in the Arctic and specifically the dynamic changes occurring to the Greenland ice sheet. Indeed, the Petermann Glacier in northeast Greenland—which connects the Greenland ice sheet with the Arctic Ocean—was so dramatic that it compelled the U.S. Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to hold hearings within days of the break up.

When I asked Burko how she felt about the changing landscape she said: “It was like when you first realize that things can change that there’s such a thing as mortality. It never occurred to me that a  landscape  could change in a few  decades. After all, it takes millions of years for glaciers to form. How could they disappear in just over 150 years?” She notes the frightening fact that, since industrialization, glaciers in Glacier National Park have reduced from 150 glaciers to fewer than 25 at present, alluding to her own sense of loss.

In subsequent years, Burko balances her time between her downtown Philadelphia studio with travel to both Poles, and participating on panels with scientists on how art can communicate science.   Her studio is an incubator for higher learning through visual riches, while her travel and association with the science community feeds her insightful imagination that produces an authoritative means of expressing Polar climate change—large-canvassed depictions of undeniable glacial melt and, at times, the incorporation of time-lapse scientific recessional lines that lend a sense of urgency.

In 2012 and 2013 she was invited by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to participate on panels about art  communicating  science  and  in 2014 spoke to scientists at the venerable Geological  Society  of America. She was recently invited to become an affiliate of the science-based Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado,  where she will participate in an interdisciplinary exchange on climate knowledge on October 27th.

Diane Burko: Visualizing Arctic Transitions

Front cover of Diane Burko: Politics of Snow showing artist mark ups

Dr. Åsa Rennermalm, a physical scientist specializing in hydrology and glaciology, shares Burko’s view that linking science with art can be a powerful means of communicating the complexity of environmental change. Burko’s work “feels so big, so alive,” she says.

Rennermalm works in the field documenting the changing Greenland ice sheet, and as a professor at Rutgers University, teaches the science of earth systems to many non-science major undergraduates. In her role as a professor she notes that it is “important to teach the basics of scientific method” but that art “gives another dimension” to understanding science.  “I measure things, I model things and summarize things in figures and tables and scientific papers and in conference presentations. Diane does it by making paintings or photography and, for most people, that makes it more accessible. It creates an interest and curiosity among people to learn more,” she explains.

Indeed, when Rennermalm reached out to Burko in 2011, she and a colleague, Hal Salzman, were in the midst of planning a freshman course about Arctic change. Through their fortuitous meeting, Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Museum organized the exhibit “Diane Burko: Glacial Perspectives,” which launched the University’s Polar Perspectives on Art and Science series. Complimenting Burko’s exhibit, the series was an interdisciplinary exploration into Arctic transitions engaging the university’s student body and a broader public through the lens of film, sculpture and ‘sonifications’ that are soundtracks of field recordings interwoven with sound design.

Burko’s exhibit alongside the series gave students the opportunity to think broadly about Arctic environmental change. “I found that for several students, art makes the ongoing changes in the Arctic climate system more real than what scientific graphs and figures communicate,” said Rennermalm. “Art invites people to reflect on these changes.”

Indeed, she invited students to view Burko’s exhibit at Rutgers, and it was “apparent to me that they became more engaged in the material.” She noted one student, who, after viewing Burko’s exhibit, “realized that the phenomena happening on earth were not just local but global.” Rennermalm seeks to engage students, to think and ask questions. She aspires not to dictate what her students should think but to take what they have learned to “formulate their own opinions.” The impact of the series extended beyond the student body to engage a diverse audience in the issues that artists and scientists alike explore with intensity and invites everyone to think and ask questions.

Diane Burko’s undulating Arctic-scapes demand the viewer’s attention, inviting audiences to emotionally engage with environmental change where scientific data alone may leave many perplexed. It presents an opportunity for conversation extending from the gallery floor, on to the classroom and into the familial kitchen raising public engagement. Burko and Rennermalm have the same vision: both are enlisting others to actively engage with the Arctic landscape, to witness the region as a location undergoing a state of immense transition. It’s for the witness to decide.

For further information visit Diane Burko’s websites: and



Erica Dingman is an associate fellow of World Policy Institute, researcher and writer whose work focuses on a broad spectrum of issues facing the Arctic in respect to climate change.

[ Photo courtesy of Diane Burko ]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.