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Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

May 15, 2017

Cover of catalog for Diane Burko’s upcoming exhibition, Glacial Shifts, Changing Perspectives: Bearing Witness to Climate Change at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville Arkansas, May 4 to Sep. 30. 

This article was previously published by Scientific American.

Documenting the effects of global warming, Diane Burko’s newly released book, Bearing Witness to Climate Change, presents her images of vanishing glacial landscapes through paintings and photography. To learn more about the driving force behind Burko’s vivid depictions of the changing natural environment see “Diane Burko: Visualizing Arctic Transitions,” which appeared in Arctic in Context in September 2014. 

By Diane Burko

I am an artist devoted to communicating issues of climate change through my practice. For the past decade, I’ve been documenting the dramatic disappearance of glaciers in large-scale series of paintings and photographs developed in close collaboration with glaciologists. It’s a symbiotic relationship: I want my work to accurately reflect the science and the urgency of climate change, and they want me to help them explain their science to the public through my art.

I didn’t begin my career with such a goal. Instead, I just wanted to experience and depict the natural wonder of our world. As a New Yorker, growing up in apartment buildings, the landscape’s open spaces and monumental geological phenomenon were particularly attractive. But expressing the beauty of our environment eventfully wasn’t enough. By the turn of this century I felt compelled to do more, to make my creativity contribute to saving our planet. Now my goal is to seduce through the magic of the image, while at the same time introducing visual elements to elicit/motivate awareness. I want the viewer to confront and comprehend the dramatic pace of ecological change and share with me the urgency I feel.

At the outset, I collaborated with scientists who generously provided their archival material, such as chronological records of glacial degradation (repeats), and visual material mapping glacial recession, as well as Landsat imagery from USGS, NASA, and NOA. Eventually I needed to participate directly—so finally, I decided to “bear witness” to the three largest ice fields in the world. In 2013, I explored Svalbard and Ny-Alesund, and Antarctica’s Peninsula; in 2014, Greenland’s Jakobshavn and Ilulissat Glaciers; and in 2015, I returned to Antarctica as well as Argentina’s Patagonian ice fields. I have just returned from a two-month journey to Australia and New Zealand’s fast-melting Southern Alps. This on-site experience enriches and informs my work leading to exhibitions that begin a dialog with audiences not initially interested in science.

My exhibition, “Shifting Glaciers, Changing Perspectives: Bearing Witness to Climate Change,” will be on display the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, from May 4 to Sep. 30, 2017, in conjunction with Artosphere, an annual regional festival that celebrates artists influenced by nature. An exquisitely designed book, including three essays, documents highlights from the last decade of my practice.

Here are some examples from this show:

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Diane Burko on Mt. Cook snow field, Feb. 24, 2017

The Mt. Cook snowfield was one of the locations along with Franz Josef and Fox Glacier and the Tasman Neve in the Southern Alps of New Zealand that I explored this past February 2017.

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Viedma Landscape, 2015

Archival inkjet print, 40 x 60 inches

This was taken while on expedition to Argentina’s Patagonian ice field in January 2015. After traveling with Students on Ice to the Antarctic Peninsula, I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate to explore the third-largest icefield in the world. Viedma the one of the glaciers there receding at the most accelerated rate.

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia Argentina, Jan. 3, 2015. Archival inkjet print, 30 x 30 inches Perito Moreno was another glacier that I visited during that 2015 expedition.


Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Petermann Calving, Aug. 16, 2010 (after NASA), 2012

Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, Collection of Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University

In 2010 a large section broke off the Peterman Glacier, losing about one quarter of its 40-mile-long floating ice shelf. I followed its progress through NASA’s Earth Observatory site and made a series of paintings about this mass of ice, at least four times the size of Manhattan as it traveled south past Newfoundland.

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

UNESCO National Heritage II and Modis 2009 III, 2015

Oil on canvas, 42 x 72 inches (left), 42 x 42 inches (right)

This painting is part of a four-panel piece relating to the extreme calving of ice from Jakobshavn Glacier on the west coast of Greenland—considerably south of Petermann. Its ice continues to contribute to critical sea level rise. 

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Landsat Series, 2015

Oil and Flashe Paint, each 20 “x20,” overall: 40 x 80 inches

This series of paintings was inspired by my studying Landsat images having to do with the polar regions. Visual data from satellites are not only informative to scientists, but are also illuminating to my art practice. 

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Arctic Melting, July 2016 (after NASA), 2016

Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 84 inches

This is a very recent painting whose source was the dramatic north pole ice melt charted by NASA in the summer of 2016. It also includes a new material I have begun to incorporate in my work, which I find to be metaphorical. The show at the Walton Arts Center highlight this new development, as does the cover of the catalog. 

Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Detail, Arctic Melting, July 2016 (after NASA), 2016

Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 x 84 inches

Perhaps this close-up detail of that painting more clearly explains how the surface refers to the cracking of ice in the Arctic sea.  



Diane Burko is a painter and photographer. Since 2006, Burko’s practice has built on the intersection of art and science, focusing on monumental geological phenomena and issues of climate change.

[Photos courtesy of Diane Burko]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.