You are bound to listen carefully. The drip, crack, splash, plop and clack of icebergs melting echoes down the phone line, leaving the listener to conjure up images of the depths of the glacial lagoon, where the sounds emerge from. The sound of Europe’s largest glacier melting, its pieces of ice plunging into the lagoon, stir up a plethora of images and sounds: water ebbing and flowing against a raft, the clacking of ice cubes in a glass jug, the sound of rain running down a corrugated iron roof.
With her project Vatnajökull: (the sound of), Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson has brought the sounds of one melting glacier to your receiver. The idea being that with a simple phone call, people from around the world can listen live to the mass glacier melting. “I did an interview with BBC Radio Arabic Services, and calls started coming in from the Middle East. I was imagining people in these very hot places calling to listen to this very cold place,” Paterson says.
The project, which involved sinking a waterproof microphone in Vatnajökull’s glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, attached to a mobile phone set to auto-answer and an amplifier on land, was first presented for a week in June 2007. Due to its immense success – around 3,200 calls from 47 different countries and states (from Poland to Palestine) were received – Paterson is running the project again, this time extending it to two months.
Jökulsárlón lies at the southern end of Vatnajökull and measures 20 km² and 200 m in depth. The pool of icebergs is so spectacular that visitors often admire it in silence. But while the beauty of the lagoon is magnificent, Paterson chooses to withhold the visual in this project, preferring to evoke images of the unseen “dying” glacier. “I was glad that the work spread so far – after all, the reason I chose to use a phone in the first place was to make it reachable from almost anywhere, both singular and universal at the same time. Attempting to bring something so immense to an intimate scale,” she explains.
The Sound of Global Warming
While the glacier itself measures 8,000 km² with an average thickness of 400 m, the lagoon was formed less than 75 years ago and is rapidly expanding as the glacier shrinks, partially due to climate change, revealing glacial ice up to 1,500 years old.
The National Energy Authority says that it is witnessing Iceland’s glaciers retreat at unprecedented levels. When Iceland’s first settlers arrived on the island around 900 AD, the edge of Vatnajökull’s glacier tongue Breiðamerkurjökull is thought to have been about 20 km further north than it is now.
While the sound of a melting glacier unsurprisingly raises associations with global warming, Paterson says she isn’t striving for an environmental message. She acknowledges the effect that a changing climate is having on the ice cap – going so far as to describe the lagoon as “a graveyard of glaciers” – but insists that the project is more about the glacier’s grandeur slipping away than a direct message about climate change.
Dial the glacier (April 2 – June 1): +44 (0) 7757001122, www.katiepaterson.org.