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View from The Arctic

With melting ice caps leading to potentially destructive oil and gas exploration in the far north, Matt Shaw and Will Trossel, the founders of ScanLAB projects, join Greenpeace on an Arctic expedition

‘‘‘This is where the ice comes to die” − did I say that?’ questions Till Wagner, sea ice scientist from Cambridge University. We’re reading the headline in the Sun newspaper which we’ve just downloaded via satellite phone. We agree that he did, and raise a toast to a media coup for our hosts, Greenpeace, and one of the first major reports on climate change in the tabloid press.

We are at approximately 89 degrees North, in the peripheral ice zone that occupies this part of the Fram Strait, north-west of Svalbard, Norway. From the bridge of our ship, Greenpeace’s icebreaker the Arctic Sunrise, we are searching out individual ice floes, each floe a fragment of the frozen skin of the ocean. The floes we visit will be analysed and digitalised to an unprecedented level, forming part of the leading climate-change research by the Polar Ocean Physics Group at DAMTP, Cambridge University.

Arne, our keen-eyed ice pilot, surveys the horizon, plotting our slow, grinding course through the densely packed floes until we  find one of suitable size to provide a mooring and ‘safe’ working platform. Our role is 3D scanning the top surface of the ice to provide millimetre-perfect models. These scans, when aligned to sonar data for the underside morphology, create a continuous virtual skin of the ice, which forms the basis for computer modelling back in Cambridge.

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The precise measures taken here are a momentary snapshot in time. At any minute the dynamic landscape system we are drifting amid can change. Ice cracks underfoot; ocean currents push a floe tens of kilometres east or west. The whole landscape is a fluxing surface of thin shifting planes of ice, crushing fields of frozen boulders and melt ponds.

We are known as ‘the architects’ by the crew, but quite how we’ve ended up on their ship they are unsure. A lot of the science team and ship’s crew see architects as naive problem solvers and visionaries − and not necessarily successful ones. We are here as observers, a forensic team on a landscape scale, our scans are the evidence we extract. On board, we find ourselves the least qualified to comment on sea ice levels or climate change.

Our present company do comment though. This year Greenpeace is focusing on the plight of the Arctic and the danger posed by international energy companies who want to exploit oil and gas reserves. Greenpeace aim to declare the Arctic a global sanctuary and are close to having three million people petition to world governments for this cause.

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Professor Peter Wadhams, the lead scientist onboard, has stated that the frozen ocean we are now etching our way painstakingly through could be subject to a major collapse where summer melt overtakes winter re-freezing in a self-perpetuating cycle. This collapse, he predicted, would occur in 2015-16 when the summer Arctic would become ice-free, due to one cause: global warming.

Wadhams and Greenpeace agree this is a human-caused design change on a planetary scale, yet the scientist differs from Greenpeace on the solution, feeling radical geoengineering ideas should be considered. We find this ambitious scale of design strangely familiar from our experiences in and around London architecture schools.

But when drifting amid the uncertain futures of the Arctic, romantic talk of dystopian visions does not go down well. The kind of doomsday scenario that might spark an interesting second-year studio brief is a live fear for Greenpeace. Their actions are seen as preventative measures. In the case of this tour they are raising awareness and supporting scientific understanding. In the case of the action which followed our tour, the boarding of Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform, they are physically halting the sinister creep northwards of landscape-altering machines. It is environmental crime, occurring now, that is the motivation for much of Greenpeace’s planetary roaming, bearing witness to the scars mankind inflicts.

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Scientists plot positions for depth drilling. They have a limited window to gather all the data they can about the ice floe while they the ship is moored to the ice. Due to the changing weather conditions, floes can breakup at any time, often without warn

More Information

The exhibition Frozen Relic: Arctic Works by ScanLAB Projects is at the AA, London, until 9 February

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