Tag Archives | climate

These boots: A personal mosaic geography of life on foot in Ottawa

I have gone the vast majority—we’re talking 98% majority—of my life without owning a car. I loved our car-free lifestyle, and it was a bit of a source of pride. But when we moved from Ottawa to Kitchener, we finally had to cave and buy our first car, since Kitchener, as a whole, is far more car-centric than Ottawa.

Year 1 of car ownership has been a bit of a difficult transition for me. Walking used to be my primary mode of transportation, with public transit, biking, and car sharing also thrown in for good measure. On any given weekday, my feet would carry me a minimum of 6 kilometres from home to the office and back. That’s at least 30 km per week, 120 km per month, and well over 1,000 km per year.

I walked in the glaring sun, the pouring rain, and the bitter cold. Walking the same path day after day, I got to know my landscape, my Place, intimately. I also got time to think. Walking for me is meditative and, as an introvert, is one of my favourite ways to recharge. It also doesn’t hurt that I stumble upon some pretty neat mosaic materials when walking.

I now telework and my commute is much shorter. Just the 14 stairs from the bedroom down to the office. I still get to walk the dog, but he’s gotten older and isn’t as spry, so the walks are slower and we don’t range as far afield anymore. And then there’s this confession: it is SO easy to fall into the trap of driving everywhere.

I’ve noticed a difference in myself, in both my fitness (no more exercise built into my daily routine by default) and in my mental state (no more automatic recharge and quietening of the mind while walking). So I’ve decided to work on rectifying the situation. Since I’m asking Kitchener residents to commit to taking one action to address climate change and then make a mosaic about it for my project, I figured I should lead by example. So one of my personal commitments is to walk/bike more (really, to drive less).

This will, of course, help reduce my carbon footprint significantly, especially given that nearly one quarter (24%) of Canada’s GHG emissions come from transportation. The transportation sector is second only to the oil and gas sector (*cough* tar sands *cough*) in terms of total emissions nationally. And here in Waterloo Region, it’s actually Number One. So there’s a lot of room for improvement. I can certainly do my part.

This mosaic is actually a map of my walking routes from my last few years in Ottawa, with some of the most important places marked: home, work (x2), the grocery store, the gym, the bus station (for those weekend trips to Montreal to visit R), the graffiti wall (one of my favourite foraging places in Ottawa), and, of course, Parliament Hill.

“The paths most travelled” (2017), 26.5″ x 24.25″ — Redback boot (right), Bogs boot (left), cement, shale, limestone

To build the map, I used urban-sourced materials, like cement, my favourite black limestone from Ottawa, and bits of stone that had flaked off a landscaping rock around the corner from our apartment. I also used my own boots, which I had worn out completely walking these and other paths.

The boots before they went under the knife…

The Bogs kept my feet toasty warm on those frigid winter walks, even when the temperature dipped below -40oC. They began and ended their life on the paths in this mosaic map. I wore them until they had a hole in the sole and water started seeping in (and even then, I put a bag on my foot to get a few more kilometres out of them!). Yes, they were good boots.

A close-up of one of the place markers, which are actually rolled-up strips of the pull tabs from the Redbacks

The Redbacks never actually set foot on these paths, having been retired years before but kept for sentimental reasons (I had bought them when on exchange in Australia in my undergrad and they had a special place in my heart). They saw me through lots of adventures, including my weekend at Touchstone, which is actually probably one of the very last times I wore them. I get a kick out of knowing that these boots, which had travelled so many paths, were there when I took my first tentative steps toward “walking the line” (as Rachel Sager would say) in the Pennsylvania countryside. I could think of no better send-off for both of these boots than to be immortalized in mosaic.

Here’s home base (the place marker on the upper right)

Rubber, stone, and even leather!

I’ve written before about the connection that I see between walking and mosaic, about the “parallels between what I experience when I’m moving through my landscape on foot and what I experience when I’m simultaneously creating and discovering the pathways of my own mosaics.” But this piece, where walking and mosaic came together completely, was one of the purest forms of line-building I’ve ever experienced in my years of working in mosaic. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The pure joy of line-building

Making this mosaic was a reminder: of all the places these boots have been, of my time in Ottawa, of the joys of walking, and of the fact that I can (and need to) do better to fight the pull of the car.

Looking out across the map, towards Gatineau

Made in Aust(ralia)

 

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Powering change: Energy production and consumption as seen through mosaic

Energy is, in large part, what got us into this climate change mess in the first place. The burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil has not been kind to the climate. So naturally, changing how we produce and consume energy—shifting to sustainable energy sources and reducing our consumption—will be an important part of taking action to reduce our climate footprint.

Let me be clear: when I’m talking about green or sustainable energy, I am not talking about things like “clean coal” (which is total greenwashing) or fracked natural gas (as much as some would like to tout this as a ‘transition fuel’ and celebrate its contribution to energy independence). No, when I talk about green energy, I am talking about truly renewable forms, like solar, wind, tidal, hydro (but more in the realm of micro-hydro and run-of-river than large-scale hydro), geothermal, and, in some cases, biomass. Yes, these all have an environmental footprint, as (fossil fuel industry–funded) opponents are fond of pointing out. There are impacts associated with the sourcing materials (e.g., mining) and production, with its transportation and construction, operation (e.g., impacts on wildlife like birds and bats), maintenance, and decommissioning. But anything we do—any form of energy we produce—has an environmental footprint, and the environmental footprint of renewable forms of energy is substantially smaller than that of fossil fuel energy. Of course, the greenest form of energy is the energy we don’t use at all and therefore don’t have to produce in the first place, also known as negawatts (‘negative megawatts’—a term coined by Amory Lovins in the 1980s).

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

“Power dynamic (Renewable production, mindful consumption)” (2017), 22″ x 11″ — marble, litovi, smalti, knob and tube, solar panel, shell, shale, limestone, sandstone, ceramic, miscellaneous stone

This mosaic tackles both renewable energy and sustainable consumption. Starting at the top, there is wind power, complete with clouds made of broken tubes from old knob and tube wiring (which were found in my dad’s garage, of course). Next up is solar power in the form of shiny rays of gold smalti. After that is all water-related forms of energy, but note that there’s lots of motion in the water (thanks to some waves made out of some really amazing shells)—no large problematic dams and reservoirs here!

Wind power and solar power detail of mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Knob and tube clouds and golden sunny rays! (Plus negawatts. They’re everywhere!)

Mosaic about renewable energy (tidal and hydro section) by Julie Sperling

The sweetest little pebble stuck in a piece of shell in the water section

Sitting on the ground, there are solar panels ready to catch the sun’s rays above. These were originally part of solar-powered plastic flowers that decorated my grandma’s planter box, but when they broke I scooped them up rather than send them to the landfill. Around the solar panels is a layer of biomass, which, if done properly, is another source of green power (‘properly’ meaning not displacing food production or leading to deforestation, among other factors).

mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, conservation, biomass, tidal, hydro)

Some negawatts mixed into the biomass section

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, tidal, hydro, biomass)

Water, solar, and biomass. Check, check, and check!

And finally, down into the earth for geothermal energy, with hints of the heated groundwater that will be tapped into to produce energy. And we can’t forget the negawatts! You’ll see small sections throughout the mosaic where there are just the impressions left by missing pieces. If we consider each individual piece in this mosaic as a megawatt (a unit of power), then those missing pieces are the negawatts: integrated throughout and an essential part of a comprehensive energy strategy.

Mosaic about renewable energy (geothermal detail) by Julie Sperling

The geothermal portion — the heat from the earth’s core and the hot water that will be tapped into

Energy is a really easy area to take action on. You can buy green energy, you can install solar panels on your home, and you can also make your home more energy efficient through renovations (e.g., putting in extra insulation, sealing cracks, planting shade trees, etc.), technology upgrades (e.g., installing a smart thermostat, getting rid of that inefficient beer fridge), and behavioural changes (e.g., hanging your clothes to dry, turning off lights when they’re not in use, putting on a sweater and keeping your house a little cooler in the winter). There are usually incentive programs around to encourage you to implement these actions, so check with your local utility company or various levels of government. The nice thing about reducing your energy consumption is that it usually saves you money in addition to helping you feel very virtuous. Bonus!

And with that, I’m off to my renewable energy–powered studio to create my next climate change mosaic…

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Parting shot of “Power dynamic”

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Black carbon: When climate change and air pollution collide

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of black carbon, but surely you’re familiar with soot, yes? Well, that’s essentially black carbon. So what does soot / black carbon have to do with climate change? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Where does it come from?

Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal), biofuels (e.g., ethanol), and biomass (e.g., wood—anything from fireplaces to forest fires). In developed countries, the majority of black carbon emissions come from burning diesel fuel (think: cars and other forms of transportation). In developing countries, however, most black carbon comes from residential cooking and heating (picture women crouched over charcoal cookstoves, because in addition to being an environmental issue, this one’s also a gender and health issue).

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

The incomplete combustion of coal, mosaic style

How does it work?

Black carbon contributes to global warming both directly and indirectly. Directly in that its little particles, being black, absorb sunlight in the atmosphere and turn that into heat. And indirectly because when deposited on snow and ice, black carbon reduces their reflectivity, so more heat gets absorbed (rather than reflected back into space), making the snow and ice melt faster. The resulting water, being darker in colour, absorbs even more heat, and on and on it goes (remember, we covered this back when we talked about sea ice decline). This makes black carbon a really important driver of climate change in the Arctic.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Black carbon at work in the Arctic, making things go wonky

Timing is everything

Along with a handful of other substances, black carbon is part of a group of super pollutants that, molecule for molecule, punch above their weight in terms of contributing to climate change. These super pollutants are known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The “short-lived” part is important: unlike greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, SLCPs have a much shorter atmospheric lifespan (more in the order of days to weeks). This timescale aspect is key. When we reduce emissions of normal GHGs, there’s quite a lag before we see anything happening in terms of falling atmospheric GHG concentrations; what we’ve already put up there stays around for a looooooong time (essentially forever), so there’s no immediate gratification for the fruits of our mitigation labours. But reducing black carbon and other SLCPs has a much more immediate impact because of their short lifecycle. While it remains imperative that we address GHGs writ large, action on SLCPs can buy us a little bit of time and might help avoid those nightmarish scenarios of unchecked climate change.

But you know what’s also great about dealing with black carbon? It’s a local pollutant (soot’s not super great for your lungs, among other things), so in addition to seeing very tangible, short-term global effects in terms of climate change, you also see immediate local public health benefits in terms of things like asthma and other respiratory conditions (and, as mentioned above, in developing countries there’s also a gender angle). That’s a lot of bang for our mitigation buck!

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Black carbon (Potent but actionable)” (2015), 12″ x 12″ — marble, coal, unglazed porcelain, smalti, sea spines

A no-brainer, but not a silver bullet

Now, on my more cynical days, I am sometimes inclined to think that developed countries find dealing with SLCPs an attractive option because it acts as a bit of a smokescreen (*groan*…sorry, I couldn’t resist) in that a lot of the work can be done outside their borders. They pull together some money for cleaner-burning stoves in developing countries, thereby appearing to be benevolent AND serious about dealing with climate change, but they essentially allow themselves to delay taking ambitious action at home, which would inevitably involve taking a long, hard look at fundamental changes to their fossil fuel-based economies. But like I said, that’s on my cynical days, which, admittedly, are too frequent. At the end of the day, action on black carbon and other SLCPs is a no-brainer, both at home and abroad. We should be doing it—it buys us some time and comes with considerable co-benefits—just as long as it’s not the only thing we do.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling -- detail

Just a parting detail shot…

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The atmosphere is a giant sponge: A mosaic about precipitation trends

Water. A basic necessity for life. But, as with most other things, climate change is going to mess with water too.

In general, wet areas are going to get wetter and dry areas drier (with exceptions to the rule, of course). Here’s how it works in a nutshell: A warmer atmosphere increases evaporation and is able to hold more water. So as warmer temperatures suck the moisture up into the atmosphere, which holds onto larger quantities of it for longer stretches of time, the land dries out more quickly, thereby increasing the risk and potential severity of drought. When the precipitation does eventually fall, it is with less frequency but higher intensity, resulting in, you guessed it, increased risk of flooding. In addition, warmer temperatures also mean that more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Less snow means a smaller snowpack, which reduces our summer water resources—normally the snow melts gradually and recharges water sources for important things like, say, agriculture. Well, not so much in the future. So, a warmer world is both wetter and drier, more drought stricken and more flood prone.

“Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions.” (IPCC AR5, 2013, “The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policy Makers“)

This mosaic is all about that growing divide between water-logged and arid regions and the fact that, when the rains do come, they won’t quench our thirst, as the deluge will simply run off our parched, sun-baked soils and endless expanses of concrete without a chance to seep in, get taken up by trees and plants, and recharge our aquifers. It’s that idea of suddenly and overwhelmingly having what you need but being unable to use it that’s behind the title of this piece: “Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken).”

"Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken)" mosaic by Julie Sperling about climate change and precipitation

“Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken)” (2015), 19″ x 14″ — Marble, ceramic tile, mudstone, smalti, glass tile, brick, terracotta, sandstone, slate, thinset tesserae, and garden hose faucet handles

Proudly displaying my find (Not pictured: Wheels already turning in my head)

Proudly displaying my find (Not pictured: Wheels already turning in my head)

The proto-idea for the mosaic had been sitting idly in the back of my brain ever since I found the two garden hose faucet handles in an abandoned lot near my office on one of my lunchtime scavenging outings over a year ago. Yep, sometimes it takes that long (and often longer) for that seed of an idea to take root and sprout.

The idea was to have the fiery side and the watery side emerging from / spinning into the faucet handles in opposite directions. You know, turning the taps on and off. And they do rotate in different directions. But depending on whether you see them as coming out of the faucets or getting sucked into them like a drain, the drought doesn’t necessarily match up with the faucet closing and the flood with it opening (righty tighty and lefty loosey, respectively). This bugged me for a while, being the perfectionist that I am, but then I made my peace with it, embraced the ambiguity, and am now simply content that they move in different directions relative to the faucets. It is enough.

Flood

Flood

Drought

Drought

About halfway through this mosaic, it suddenly hit me: I was applying some of the things I had played with / learned during the IMA challenges. Until now, the impact of these challenges on my work had been fuzzy and intangible at best. But now here I was, weaving the lines in more than one colour and material (just like I practiced in Week 2) and also making use of negative space between the lines in the tangle (sort of like in Week 13). Now, I probably could have done this piece without the IMA challenge experience under my belt, but I like to think that in some way having gone through those challenges shaped the decisions I was making, even subconsciously, and my work was better for it.

Learning how to weave the lines over and under

Learning how to weave the lines over and under — a chronological progression

I must be a glutton for punishment, because making the lines meander and crisscross like this is certainly a challenge. Building so many lines in parallel and keeping track of each one’s direction relative to the rest of the jumble and how they’re going to go over and under each other is such a headache. And yet I love doing it. I have absolutely no plan when I set out on one of these undertakings. In many ways they are the most unpredictable of the work that I do. The lines take me on a journey and, while I may protest occasionally (“No, contrary to what you may think, dear line, I believe you really do want to veer left over here”), I generally just do their bidding. Maybe that’s why I love doing it so much: the element of surprise and the unknown keeps me engaged and on the edge of my seat.

Flood detail

Flood detail

Drought detail

Drought detail

The divide between wet and dry

The divide between wet and dry

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Keep your eye on the man, not the dog: A(nother) mosaic about weather vs. climate

“Keep your eye on the man, not the dog.” That’s what Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us to do as he clearly and simply explains the difference between weather and climate. I included this same video in the blog post I did about my previous weather vs. climate mosaic, so for a refresher on the subject (and why the confusion between the two drives me batty) please refer back to that post.

This piece was commissioned by a friend and fellow mosaic artist (it’s that same commission that fell into my lap at SAMA in Philly). I was honoured to have been asked to make something for her, especially because I really look up to her as an artist. On the flip side, however, this made the whole process inherently nerve-racking. It’s intimidating to make something for a mosaic person, because they know. 

I was given complete freedom with the piece and just told to “have some creative fun on [her] nickel” (more daunting than I would’ve thought!)—the only requirement was that I had to use red somewhere, somehow. Since I got the commission at SAMA on the same day that I sold “Weather is not climate” in the silent auction, I thought a sister piece would be appropriate. The man/dog analogy had been stuck in my head since doing the last weather vs. climate piece, so I took that as my point of departure. Since I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, I decided to try something completely new for me: building something to pop off the substrate and bend and snake in three dimensions. Of course, as I felt my way through the process I was totally kicking myself for not having taken Marian Shapiro‘s “Bend, fold, undulate” class at SAMA… (Funnily enough, the friend I was making this for actually did take that class!)

"Follow the man, not the dog" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Follow the man, not the dog” (2015), 10″ x 10″ — marble, limestone (Ottawa), slate, shale (Pennsylvania and Ottawa), bituminous coal, cinca, glass tile, smalti

Is it just me, or is this path eerily similar to the one I ended up creating?

Is it just me, or is this path eerily similar to the one I ended up creating?

I actually didn’t go back and watch the video until it was time to write this post, and it’s crazy how similar the bends are in my ribbon and the dog’s trajectory in the video. I also hadn’t even remembered that the straight line that NDG walks in the video was red until I went back and watched. Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps it’s my brain working in mysterious ways.

The materials I used weren’t chosen specifically for their personal significance, but the connections and meaning of some of them are kind of neat. The black marble (and fibreglass strands I used to strengthen the ribbon) and Marcellus shale came from two separate mutual mosaic friends. The grey rock was scavenged from my favourite place along the Ottawa River in celebration of my second Touchstone anniversary—significant because (a) I took my friend scavenging there and (b) we actually met at Touchstone. And the coal came from a fellow Touchstone classmate of ours. I love these kinds of connections.

So there you have it. A second mosaic about how weather is not the same thing as climate. You know if I dealt with the subject twice, it must mean that it really bugs me. So please stop saying “What happened to global warming?” on those frigid winter days, ok? Don’t make me make a third piece…

"Follow the man, not the dog" mosaic by Julie Sperling

"Follow the man, not the dog" mosaic by Julie Sperling

A side view of the ribbon / snake

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Weather vs. climate: A mosaic about one of my pet peeves

batman slap robin climate change

If my mosaic were a meme, it would be this.

My blood boils every time I hear someone say, “Man, it’s so cold out! So much for global warming, eh?” We’re talking a fist-clenching, teeth-grinding level of frustration and anger. So what do I do about it (other than correct someone every time they make such a boneheaded statement)? I make a mosaic about it, of course!

So let’s get things straight, shall we? First let’s talk about the difference between climate change and global warming. Climate change is not exclusively about things getting warmer—this is why we don’t refer to it as global warming anymore—climate change affects both warm and cold regions of the world and is about more than just temperature (e.g., precipitation, sea level, etc.).

And the distinction between weather and climate can be summed up with the phrase: “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get,” which basically boils down to the fact that weather is what you see on any given day out your window (the short-term, immediate stuff), while climate is the global average taken over a much longer time period. Climate is not weather, and cold or snowy weather does not disprove climate change (much to the chagrin of snowball-throwing Republican senators). But here, how about we take 2 minutes and let a real scientist—Neil deGrasse Tyson—explain it to us using a really simple example: Follow the man, not the dog.

With that cleared up, now let’s have a look at the mosaic I made. The terracotta trendline is meant to represent rising global temperatures from a variety of climate models (they may all be slightly different, but they’re all headed in the same general direction). I used the copper wire because it’s a good conductor of heat, which I thought was appropriate. And the blue smalti punctuating the piece here and there? Those are those pesky snowy, cold blips. They’re there, yes, but they don’t disturb the trend. Not much else to say about this piece. It was a fun one, and I’m thinking of maybe doing a second one on the same theme (just a different way of representing it visually), so stay tuned!

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic

“Weather is not climate” (2015), 10″ x 10″, marble, stone, terracotta, smalti, beads, copper wire

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic

A closer look at the trendline with the cold-weather blips

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic

Close-up of the little copper outliers poking up here and there

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