Tag Archives | ice

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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Melting away: A mosaic about sea ice decline

For the second mosaic in my climate change series, I decided to tackle sea ice decline. The long and the short of the trend: it doesn’t look good for sea ice, folks (or for the cryosphere in general). But don’t just take my word for it, let’s see what the smarty pants scientists from the IPCC have to say about the subject: according to them, “the current (1980–2012) summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented and sea surface temperatures in the Arctic were anomalously high in the perspective of at least the last 1450 years.” Yikes. Oh, and “a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in September before mid-century is likely.” Why should you be concerned about the loss of sea ice? Well, it plays an important function in regulating the Earth’s temperature (its whiteness and shininess reflects light and heat), so without it things will get even warmer and wonkier. It’s also a key component of polar ecosystems—think of the polar bears and seals and penguins, oh my!

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Sea ice (Steady unprecedented decline)” (2014), 14.5″ x 20″
Quartz, marble, stone from Ottawa and Georgian Bay, smalti, recycled glass tile, salvaged glass table top

 

Yep, it’s disappearing. Source: Climate Change 2013, The Physical Science Basis (IPCC)

This particular mosaic was based on a graph of Arctic summer sea ice extent since 1900. The trendline of the mosaic is made from a big chunk of quartz that was given to me by a friend of my mom’s. It took me a while to work up the nerve to smash it to bits with my hammer, but it was either that or let it sit there and collect dust. And this just means I have room to bring in more fun materials! In terms of stone, I used a white marble tile I scored at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, along with that amazing blue stone from up near the cottage (Georgian Bay, Ontario), and the nice glittery grey layered limestone (?) and black stone from Ottawa. The glass is a mix of smalti (the various blue lines), recycled glass tile, and some chunks of a broken glass tabletop that I rescued from the curb. I like the way the stone and the clear glass play off each other, but it really was a struggle to break down the glass. I’m slowly rekindling my relationship with glass, but it needs work. I think more practice will help, because as my skills get stronger, I will be less frustrated when working with it. And I’m hoping my sweet new Japanese hammer will help…

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (detail)

A slightly better view of the undulations

I added some undulations to the substrate to evoke snow drifts and rolling seas. And I intentionally put some of the machined edges of the glass facing up (as opposed to the riven side) because, being so smooth, they really catch the light and look like glints of shiny snow or ice. Of course, the curves and the way the tesserae catch the light—which are my two favourite parts of this mosaic—are the hardest ones to photograph. I really had trouble getting a photo that captures the essence of this piece (I was desperately wishing my photographer friends lived closer). Perhaps it’s just one of those pieces that needs to be seen in person for the full effect. Or perhaps I just need to hone my photography skills. I suspect it’s actually a little of both.

I’m thoroughly enjoying creating this series, even though I’m only two mosaics into it. I like the idea of engaging with a subject for a prolonged period of time. I’ve already got my next two pieces ready to go in my mind, and countless other proto-ideas jotted down. Apparently climate change is the subject that, sadly, keeps on giving. In a previous post I had joked about a cheeky working title for the series, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to keep it as the official series title. So, it’s official: say hello to “Fiddling while Rome burns”—a series of mosaics about climate change.

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

A close-up of some of the quartz pieces, and you can also see the difference between the riven and machined edges of the glass (See the run of smooth, shiny glass pieces between the two quartz chunks? Now contrast that with the riven edges of the glass three rows above.)

A front angle shot to show the topography

A front angle shot to show the topography

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (side view)

Looking back towards the top of the trend line

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (detail of topography and quartz)

Just a side view of the topography and the quartz sticking up, just floating along on the flowing ice and water

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

The quartz and rolling snow drifts and waves from another angle

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

A look at the biggest quartz pieces in the icy, snowy top corner before they melt away…

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 16: The swept floor

This week’s challenge—“The Swept Floor“—was courtesy of Margo Anton and the rules were simple: use only scraps and don’t cut any of it (use it how you discarded it).

"Glacial till" - made entirely of scraps from previous projects

“Glacial till” – made entirely of scraps from previous projects

Title: “Glacial till”

Size: 4.25″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, glass, quartz, shale, marble

How long did it take to complete? About 2 hours

Thoughts: Considering I got my start in mosaics using glass scrap and rarely cutting anything, this week was surprisingly challenging. I had been processing a bunch of material recently for my next non-challenge mosaic, so I saved all the offcuts to use for this piece. I just kind of threw myself into this without a game plan and ended up working in sections that were determined by material and the shape of the pieces. There are groups of tesserae in this mosaic that I really love in terms of how they play off of / relate to one another, but overall I’m not crazy about the piece. I’m finding that when I don’t put any thought into the design beforehand, the results are a crapshoot, with me ending up unsatisfied more often than not. While I don’t usually (ever?) make a detailed sketch, I do tend to mull things over for a good while before diving in. These challenges are definitely reinforcing the parts of my practice that are essential for me.

glacial till - angle

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On warm-ups, playtime, and palate cleansers

"Thaw" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Thaw” (2013) – scavenged safety glass, stone, smalti, cinca

I have recently discovered that I work better after warming up. I’ve always known that it takes me a while to get into the groove with other things, especially with sports, and even with writing; however, I had never even considered that this might also be true of mosaics. Well, after deciding that I would try to always have two projects on the go – a small one (to tinker around and have fun with) and a larger one – I’ve discovered that I work best when I lay down a few lines on my small piece before diving into the big one. Who knew?!

These smaller mosaics are also great for just playing around and experimenting with different materials or styles. It’s OK if I don’t like the outcome, because I haven’t invested too much time and/or too many materials in them. They’re also great ‘palate cleansers’ between bigger projects, perfect for helping me shift gears (as was the case with “Harvest”). There’s also the added bonus of having something – albeit a small something – to show for my work more often, which works well with my results-oriented personality.

I’m calling my most recent warm-up / playtime mosaic “Thaw”. I had been wanting to experiment with the safety glass that my mom scavenged from a bus shelter for me (best Christmas present ever!) since, well, Christmas, so that’s where the palette started. I also had a tiny bit of clear-ish smalti left over from the Mississippi project, so I grabbed that, and some really white stone tile I got from the ReStore (no idea if it’s natural or man-made, but I’m leaning toward the latter). And then I decided to toss in some cinca, just for kicks. The white stone was super crumbly and cut terribly – I was thankful that I tried it out on a small piece before committing myself to using it in a big piece. I may actually never use it again.

Anyway, I’m really digging this new way of working. So three cheers for warm-ups, playtime, and palate cleansers!

Close up of "Thaw" - mosaic by Julie Sperling

Zoom in on “Thaw”

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