Tag Archives | science

It’s simple chemistry: Ocean acidification is bad news

Whenever we talk about climate change, it’s only natural to focus on what happens up in the atmosphere. But climate change has an evil twin: ocean acidification (also known as “the other CO2 problem”).

By now you already know that when we burn things like coal and other fossil fuels, greenhouse gases like CO2 get released into the atmosphere. But did you know that some of that CO2 also gets absorbed by the oceans? And when that happens, it forms carbonic acid, making the oceans more acidic. Since oceans cover 70% of our little blue planet, that’s a LOT of surface area for them to come into contact with the atmosphere and for CO2 to be transferred from air to water. In fact, the oceans absorb about 25% of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, or roughly 22 million tons per day (and have absorbed a full 50% of what we’ve emitted over the past 200 years).

Scientists used to think that the oceans were doing us a favour, climate wise, by taking in all that CO2. Taking one for the team, if you will. The warming we’re experiencing now would have been that much worse had the oceans not absorbed so much of what we’ve emitted to date. Originally, scientists thought that the ocean could play this buffering role indefinitely and self-regulate. Sadly, the scientists were wrong; the natural regulating processes in the oceans can’t keep up with the amount of CO2 being absorbed and their acidity is increasing. Today, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. And if emissions keep on going at their current pace, scientists predict that the oceans could be 150% more acidic by the end of the century, with a pH level that hasn’t been seen since 20 million years ago.

So what happens when the oceans get more acidic? All sorts of bad things. Species like oysters, clams, corals, and sea urchins have a really tough time building their shells. For instance, mussels and oysters are expected to produce 25% and 10% less shell, respectively, by 2100. And tiny little pea-sized sea creatures called pteropods or “sea butterflies”—the inspiration for this mosaic—are already feeling the impacts. A lot of these species are at the bottom of the food chain, and when they’re threatened, the impacts ripple and cascade through the rest of the system, right up to us, with serious implications for the food security of millions of people.

pteropod time lapse

A pteropod shell gradually dissolving over 2 months when placed in sea water with a pH equal to that predicted for the year 2100

And it’s not only shelled organisms that are feeling the impact of increasing ocean acidity; fish can also be affected. The excess acid in the ocean finds its way into their bloodstream, and they end up expending more of their energy to counter its effects and regulate the pH of their blood. That means fish have less energy to do other important things, like digesting food, fleeing from predators, hunting, and even reproducing. It can also mess with their behaviour, preventing them from hearing and avoiding predators, and actually making them bolder and more likely to venture away from shelter (thereby increasing their risk of predation), as well as compromising their ability to navigate. (And this, again, links directly to food security issues for a good chunk of the world’s population.)

"Breaking the hand that feeds us (More acidic, less viable)" (2015), 18" x 18" -- marble, ceramic, mudstone, limestone, chalk, smalti, flint, shells

“Breaking the hand that feeds us (More acidic, less viable)” (2015), 18″ x 18″ — marble, ceramic, mudstone, limestone, chalk, smalti, flint, shells

If you want the 2-minute version of the story, I’d highly suggest watching this video, courtesy of Grist. And if you’ve got 20 minutes to spare, why not settle in and let Sigourney Weaver teach you about ocean acidification?

breaking the hand - crop angle

So, I think you probably understand by now that ocean acidification is a really big deal, which is why it was important for me to include a mosaic about it in this series. As I mentioned above, the images of the dissolving pteropod were by original inspiration—after having seen them, I just couldn’t shake them. To really get into the spirit of the issue, I decided that my mosaic should include shells that had been dissolved in acid, so I ran my own little homemade ocean acidification simulation. Do you remember making naked eggs as kids? You put an egg in vinegar (which is acidic) and its shell dissolves gradually over a few days, leaving only the membrane, or a naked egg. Fun times. Well, I figured I could use the same principle on some seashells that had been donated to me in recent years. And it worked like a charm. The shells bubbled and fizzed like crazy in the vinegar, and slowly but surely dissolved. The only thing I didn’t anticipate was just how much vinegar I would need: nearly 3L. I am so very very sick of the smell of vinegar at the moment. Some of the shells that I dissolved were quite beautiful in their original state, and someone on Facebook asked if it had been tough to sacrifice those to the vinegar. It had given me pause, to be sure, but I think it only serves to reinforce the message of the mosaic: ocean acidification will wreak havoc on those things we find most dear, beautiful, and life-sustaining.

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic

 

Oh, but these two are quite striking too...

Oh, but these two are also quite striking…

 

And then there's this one. I love how I had no idea what would happen once they went into the vinegar. The element of surprise always makes my work more fun.

And then there’s this one. I love how I had no idea what would happen once they went into the vinegar. The element of surprise always makes my work more fun.

1

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…

3

Places vs. names: Making peace with my lack of interest in nomenclature

Back in high school, I loved science. More specifically, I loved naming and classifying things. Inorganic chemistry nomenclature? Oh baby. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Yes please! I was damn good at memorization and I liked structure and rules.

So imagine my surprise when, after discovering that I wanted to make mosaics from rocks I foraged for myself, I came to the realization that I had very little interest in learning their names and boning up on geology. At first this really bothered me and I was disappointed in myself. Even now, I still feel a bit guilty when people ask me what type of rock I used in a particular mosaic and I have to answer “I don’t know.” Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people identify my rocks for me, but I’m just not that motivated to search out the information myself (although if there were a compelling reason to do so, I would certainly do my homework). I think this is partly because I’m not great at learning this sort of stuff on my own from a book or a website—I’d much rather learn it from someone. But even more fundamentally, what I’ve come to realize is that what’s more significant and meaningful to me is where the rocks come from, not what they’re called.

Loading up on a family hike

I take such pleasure in recalling where I was, who I was with, and the whole experience of gathering the rock. There’s the batch of rock that was scavenged at lunchtime on the bank of the Ottawa river, when I ripped my pants scrambling back up the retaining wall. Or the haul from the cottage, gathered on a beautiful September day while hiking with my family for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Or the flakes of weathered rock sitting abandoned on the lawn of an apartment building that I passed every day on my way to work for the better part of a year until one day I finally said, “Enough!” and stopped to scoop them up. Or there’s the rock I grabbed on the way back from the monastery in Quebec’s Eastern Townships after pulling the car over to the side of the road on a whim on a misty Saturday afternoon.

A perfect window onto the roadside jackpot in the Eastern Townships

A perfect window onto the roadside jackpot in the Eastern Townships

My naming system, if you can call it that, is simple. There’s black rock, off-white rock, blueish rock, grey rock with sparkly layers that smells like gas when cut. To be fair, I have learned some of their actual names (like mudstone and bituminous dolomite), but that’s secondary to me. There’s rock that cuts effortlessly in neat little cubes, rock that has a satisfying snap, and rock that is unpredictably wonderful. I don’t need to get any fancier in my classification than that, because rocks for me are more about place. They are a moment in space and time—a memory—and they carry stories. That’s what’s important and interesting to me. That’s why I love using them.

So next time you ask me what kind of rock I’m using, please don’t be surprised when I say, unapologetically, “I don’t know, but I found it on the shore of this lake when I was out for a hike with so-and-so, and it cuts like a dream.” (And if you’re able to identify any of my rocks, I’m all ears!)

2

It’s “very likely” that communicating about climate change is challenging

Communicating about climate change is tricky, no doubt about it. Not only is it a complicated issue, with plenty of risks and impacts (many of which are quite regionally specific), oodles of underlying science, and a wide range of possible actions, there’s also the complexity of the contentious political layer that inevitably gets added to the mix. It certainly isn’t a straight-forward conversation.

Those interested in advancing this issue—be they environmentalists, business leaders, scientists, policy makers, concerned citizens, or others—have generally come to the conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating climate change. Instead, it’s all about knowing your audience, their motivations, and what resonates with them. For instance, we know that negative messaging (of the “We’re totally screwed!” variety) is, on the whole, ineffective. It runs the risk of desensitizing people and/or causing them to throw up their hands in defeat. Likewise, most people aren’t motivated to act out of a sense of altruism or even for the sake of their children or grandchildren; rather, you’re much more likely to convince them to take action if you link it to something more tangible and immediate, like their health, their wallet, or their competitive spirit (e.g., that one-upsmanship that’s driving Californians to rip up their lawns and install drought-tolerant gardens in order to show their neighbours up, or how people silently take note, one eyebrow raised disapprovingly, of who doesn’t put out their recycling and organics bin on garbage day).

Speaking purely anecdotally, on more than one occasion (and much to my annoyance), I’ve heard people pass the buck, saying that scientists haven’t done a good job conveying the climate change message—“Well I would’ve done something, but the scientists, they just didn’t communicate it properly!” It feels like a pretty lame excuse to maintain the status quo. Scientists are scientists. They do science. Yes, there are those who are also expert communicators, like David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, and others, but, by and large, I’m happy for them to concentrate on the science. It’s not like they expect us to be quantum physicists, cardiologists, or organic chemists, so let’s not expect them to be wordsmiths and orators.

bennett - now playingHere’s the thing: We all need to take responsibility, for both delivering the message and receiving the message. Yes, we could almost certainly find a more effective way to communicate climate change, even with all its science and impacts and potential solutions. If marketers can manage to convince people that they need monthly subscriptions for things like novelty watches, vegetable peelers, or 18-month wall calendars, I’m pretty sure that it’s possible to convince people to take action on climate change. BUT—and this is a big and essential but—the public also has to do its part. We can’t whine about it being too complicated or hard to understand and stick our heads in the sand just because we don’t like what the weighty reality of the message implies. We need to step up, do the work to make sense of the issue (rather than retreating to our kitten memes and celebrity gossip), and then act on that information. It’s a two-way street, folks, and nobody is without responsibility. Hence the title of this piece: “Dialogue (The burden of the message).”

The inspiration for this mosaic was a study that examined the gap between what scientists mean and what the public interprets. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts out what are known as Assessment Reports. Thousands of scientists volunteer their time for this undertaking, where they comb through the scientific literature and synthesize it into a series of reports focused on the physical science of climate change, the impacts, and the mitigation options. The scientists assign the various findings that come out of this roll-up exercise with a rating that indicates how certain they are about each one (i.e., how settled the science is). For example, take this finding from the synthesis report: “It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration” (my emphasis). When IPCC scientists say “virtually certain” they mean they’re at least 99% sure, and for “very likely” there’s a likelihood of 90% or greater. But when the general public hears these verbal expressions of confidence, they tend to underestimate in cases where scientists are certain (and, oddly enough, overestimate certainty where scientists are less sure or the impacts are less likely). For example, while for IPCC scientists “very likely” means 90%-100% likelihood, people interpret this as more in the range of 50% to 90%. Takeaway message: communicating the science of climate change is hard because people’s baggage sways their interpretation and all too often things get lost in translation.

"Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling - communicating climate change

“Dialogue (The burden of the message)” (2015), 17.25″ x 24.5″ — layered spray paint tesserae and rocks

This mosaic is a visual representation of the “very likely” rating and the corresponding public interpretation of it. In the main grouping there are 11 lines, each with exactly 100 tesserae, to represent the 90% to 100% certainty range—the layers of spray paint are the certain parts, the rocks the uncertain. And then slightly offset at the bottom is a 12th line (or a footnote, as R likes to refer to it) that’s 50% stone, to represent the lower end of the public interpretation of the “very likely” rating.

Angle view of "Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

All materials for this piece were sourced from within a 400m radius of my apartment

I was so happy when I landed on the idea of using layers of spray paint—fallen from a local graffiti wall—as the main material for this piece. Not only because it was so much fun (and different) to work with as I snipped and ripped and shaved it, but also because it feels entirely appropriate for two reasons. First (and directly linked to the study in question), because the IPCC assessment reports are a synthesis of heaps of individual scientific studies. (Plus, you have to admit, there is something kind of bookish about how the paint layers look in the mosaic). But more importantly, the graffiti paint is fitting because at its most essential it is layers upon layers of meanings and messages, which makes it a great material for talking about communication and dialogue.

Let's take a closer look at those layers, shall we?

Let’s take a closer look at those layers, shall we?

A commenter on Instagram said the paint layers were like fordite's edgier cousin---a comparison that I absolutely adore!

A commenter on Instagram said the paint layers were like fordite’s edgier cousin—a comparison that I absolutely adore!

So, to recap: Communicating about climate change is no small feat, but let’s not use scientists as our scapegoats for inaction. The onus is on both the messenger AND the recipient to transmit and interpret our considerable knowledge about what’s happening with the climate and then act responsibly and not turn a blind eye.

Detail of "Dialogue (The burden of the message)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Spray paint tesserae and rocks, tilting to and fro…

6

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

3

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

2

False debate: A mosaic celebrating the scientific consensus on climate change

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. In the words of the latest IPCC report: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” And yet people still seem to think there’s a debate about whether or not climate change is (a) occurring and (b) caused by human activity. This manufactured debate is courtesy of a handful of powerful corporations whose wealth is inextricably tied to the fossil fuel industry and who are able to exert a disproportionate amount of influence on the media and politicians. The result is public confusion. This whole situation frustrates me to no end. By all means, let’s debate. But let’s not debate about whether or not climate change is happening. (Spoiler alert: It is.) Instead, let’s talk about what we should do about it, which policy instruments we should employ. Now there’s a debate I’d welcome with open arms (as long as it actually leads to action).

climate science consensus pie graph mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” (2015), 24″ diameter
Stone (limestone, sandstone, Eramosa marble, coal, shale, concretions), cement parging, salvaged tile, brick, ceramic, Italian smalti, rusted metal, vintage 24-karat gold smalti

climate consensus pie chartThis so-called ‘debate’ about climate change is what inspired this mosaic. A 2013 study by John Cook of The Consensus Project examined a whopping 12,000 peer-reviewed journal articles about climate change published between 1991 and 2011. Of the roughly 4,000 that stated a position on anthropogenic climate change, 97% of these articles endorsed the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. The rest? Well, that’s just junk science. (You can watch Cook explain his study in this 3-minute video.) Even with the scientific consensus sitting around 97% and growing, public perception of scientific agreement is far lower (people believe that about 50% of scientists support anthropogenic climate change). And this ‘consensus gap’ between scientific reality and public perception prevents us from taking meaningful action to address climate change as we go around in circles, debating something that has actually been settled for years.

And so I decided to turn this convincing pie graph into a mosaic. The outlying 3%—the junk science—is quite fittingly represented by a bunch of rusty bits of metal (scavenged a year ago on the streets of Ottawa during the spring thaw) and coal sent to me by one of my Touchstone classmates. It’s funny, I very nearly got the math wrong on this when I was sketching it out. For some reason, my brain hopped instantly from 3% to 3º. Luckily, just before I was about to start sticking stuff down, I realized 3% is actually closer to 11º. Glad I caught that one!

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

This piece is so full of different materials that I had a hard time coming up with a list! There are stones, of course: shale, limestone, sandstone, coal, and Eramosa marble (and probably others that I can’t identify). There are two roundish red rocks I picked up along the banks of the St. Lawrence while out for a sunny Thanksgiving stroll. There are concretions given to me by friends in Alberta and Pennsylvania. There’s cement parging fallen from various walls around my neighbourhood—always in ample supply in the spring. There’s a variety of floor tiles (some even salvaged from my parents’ recent renovation, which my feet and my family’s feet have walked over a thousand times), brick that the Ottawa winter kindly liberated from a neighbouring house, and one of my favourite plates from my university days. And there is Italian smalti and hints of vintage 24-karat gold smalti (a splurge when I was in Chicago).

I had a heck of a time naming this piece. When I originally conceived of it, I got used to just referring to it as my “Junk Science” piece. I liked the ring of it and I was very close to actually naming it that. But then it struck me: why should the 3% minority get naming rights? Unacceptable. And so, “Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” was born. The title comes from the only thing I managed to retain from the two weeks I spent in high school Algebra and Geometry before dropping the class (let’s just say that word problems are not my strength); QED is what you put at the end of a mathematical proof to indicate that it is complete (it roughly translates as “that which was to be demonstrated”). I guess it’s kind of the mathematical equivalent to dropping the mic? Anyway, I like how it lends a certain seriousness / formality to the piece, which is appropriate given that we’re really talking about one of the most fundamental concepts that I will ever deal with in this series.

Julie Sperling climate change mosaic pie graph scientific consensus

Check out how it dips over the edge of the substrate in places

As a final note, I wanted to mention that I’m really excited about this piece and how it turned out. There’s something about it that feels different, like something in me has shifted in some way (though I’m still working on putting my finger on what, exactly, that is and harnessing it going forward). I have a feeling that this mosaic will be an important marker in my evolution and growth as an artist, and this has me grinning a big ol’ stupid grin!

Bonus video: If you like sensible and funny commentary, you’ll love this John Oliver segment on the climate change ‘debate’. It is so perfectly bang on.

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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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Why make mosaics about climate change?

When I tell people that I’m doing a series of mosaics about climate change, the usual response is something like <insert raised eyebrows, skeptical / confused look> “Ummm…ok…?” (My environmental policy wonk colleagues are the exception to this rule—they are super keen and excited about it.) This is why I figured it would be a good idea to devote a blog post to explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Let’s tackle the easy question first: Why climate change? In short, climate change worries me. A lot. I will be the first to admit that I often get very very frustrated by

  • the lack of awareness and concern among the general public,
  • the overwhelming sense of apathy and inertia that seems to exist (including the lack of action at the political level),
  • the ‘debate’ about the reality of climate change, which is engineered by a small but vocal few who are propped up by junk ‘science’ (for a good explanation of this, I highly recommend James Hoggan’s “Climate Cover-Up“), and
  • the entirely false but annoyingly persistent either/or choice we are offered between the economy OR the environment (when, in fact, we can have both).
Joel Pett's editorial cartoon perfectly sums up the fact that we have nothing to lose by acting on climate change. So what are we waiting for?

Joel Pett’s editorial cartoon perfectly sums up the fact that we have nothing to lose by acting on climate change. So what are we waiting for?

I could go on, but at the risk of sounding ranty and alienating readers, I’ll stop there. While I do what I can in my personal life, at work I often feel like my hands are tied. Such is the reality of being a small cog in the big machine that is the federal bureaucracy. Anyway, I wanted to do more, and I decided that one way I could do this was through my art.

I think artists are in a unique position of being able to translate complex and/or intangible concepts and issues in a way that makes them more accessible and visceral for the general public. Art encourages people to slow down, and it invites them to really interact with a subject. I think creating this space for contemplation and dialogue is an essential counterbalance to the never-ending stream of headlines and soundbites. In this way, artists are well placed to contribute to the public policy dialogue on any number of issues. I get positively giddy when art, science, and public policy collide.

One of Gregory C. Johnson's 19 brilliantly simple illustrated haikus from the IPCC Physical Science Assessment

One of Gregory C. Johnson’s 19 brilliantly simple illustrated haikus summing up the IPCC Physical Science Assessment

I am neither the first nor the last artist to engage in this way. Even in the narrower niche of art related to climate change, I am in good company. Some recent examples that have been inspiring me are oceanographer/artist Gregory C. Johnson’s 19 illustrated haikus of the key takeaways from the IPCC’s Physical Science Assessment (a 2,000+ page document), Courtney Mattison’s large-scale ceramic installations depicting coral bleaching, the eclectic rafts created by street artist Swoon as a statement about rising sea levels and the loss of people’s homelands, and, of course, fellow Canadian Franke James’ visual essays that take aim at Canadian climate policy (among other things). Even within the mosaic community, I am not alone. Yulia Hanansen is working on a series about the effects of climate change on water distribution, and I’m sure there are others.

I have cheekily given my series the working title “Fiddling while Rome burns.” Who knows, maybe it’ll stick! I’m basing it on graphs and basic concepts / processes because (a) I think we tend to forget that there is a solid scientific grounding behind calls for climate action and (b) I believe we have pretty much become immune to alarming climate change graphs, statistics, trends, and impacts. I know I am certainly guilty of simply scanning the latest graph du jour and thinking “Yup, it’s bad,” as I scroll past. And if I—as an informed and engaged citizen—do it, then I know other people do it too. So putting these graphs and trends in stone, turning them into art, is my attempt to get people to look at them for more than a split second and realize that, yes, these trends are real, climate change is happening, and we’re already feeling its effects. Mosaic also seems like a good medium for communicating about climate change because they’re both such slow, gradual processes. But I think the parallels between mosaic and climate change also hold true for addressing climate change. Individual pieces of stone and glass come together to create something bigger, and individual actions really do add up and collectively make a difference. If my mosaics can inspire people to make even one positive change in their lives for the sake of the climate, well then that’s pretty neat and it gives me a bit of hope.

Extra credit: If you want to bone up on climate change, I’d highly recommend checking out DeSmog Blog (it even has a sister site dedicated solely to the Canadian context) or tuning into the new TV series Years of Living Dangerously. There are plenty of good and credible climate news sources out there, but these should get you started.

Mosaics in the series (evergreen list):

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Temperature’s rising: Embarking on a series devoted to climate change

I have just begun a new series dedicated to climate change. I won’t get into my motivations behind the series in this post, because I’m planning on doing a post exclusively on the ‘why’ of the series in the near future. Instead, this post will explore the first mosaic of the series.

It seemed like a no-brainer to start a climate change series with a mosaic based on rising global temperatures. The actual inspiration for this piece was the graph below, taken from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (essentially, a really really big report that contains the most up-to-date, reliable climate science available). I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the graph, but basically it shows that global temperatures are going up.

The verdict: It's getting warmer.

The verdict: It’s getting warmer. (Source: IPCC, “Climate change 2013: The physical science — Summary for policymakers”)

It actually took me quite a while to fiddle with my palette and figure out how exactly I wanted to execute the piece. The stones I used were from the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario (the white and red ones), Pennsylvania (the yellow stuff), and Kamouraska, Quebec (the thin jagged ones I used for the trend line). The yellowish sandstone has a lot of mica in it, which is fun to look at up close but ridiculously hard to photograph (at least with my meager photographic skills).

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)” (2014) — stone from Ontario, Quebec, and Pennsylvania, and a flue damper, 16.25″ x 24.25″

The metal circle in the bottom corner is a rusty old flue damper that I found in my daddy’s garage. I figured it was an appropriate sort of thing to include in this piece, since it’s used to control the air flow (and therefore temperature) in a wood-burning stove.

Daddy's garage is full of old treasures like this flue damper. I love that it's from Guelph, Ontario (close to where I grew up)

Daddy’s garage is full of old treasures like this flue damper. I love that it’s from Guelph, Ontario (close to where I grew up)

My favourite thing about this piece is the trend line. I love how the thin stones echo the annual variations shown in the graph, yet, when taken as a whole, clearly show an upward trend. These thin stones were actually a last-minute substitution. I had originally planned to do the trend line in terracotta (thinking the colour was appropriate for the subject matter), but there was something about it that just wasn’t sitting right with me. I’ve been learning the value of giving myself some distance when I’m unsure about something, so I let it percolate in the back of my head for a few days and eventually landed on the thin Quebec stones.

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

A view of the flue damper over the rugged topography of the trend line

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

The trend line from another angle, heading up, up, and away.

I am really excited about this series (I’ve already got ideas for at least 5 or 6 other pieces bouncing around in my head) and I’m looking forward to explaining my motivations in a future post. But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of “Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)”.

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

One last parting shot of the flue damper and trend line

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