Music from melting glaciers.

Earther has a nice look at a University of Virginia sound artist who’s turning shrinking glaciers into his musical instrument:

“We’re trying to create art, but it also has other possibilities,” Matthew Burtner, who presented his work on glacial sonification at the American Geophysical Union meeting last week, told Earther.

For Burtner, glaciers have always been a subject close to home. Born and raised in small Alaskan villages, he grew up close to nature, often making music outdoors, and “experiencing the devastating effects of climate change” firsthand, from melting sea ice to thawing permafrost.

“That was already happening in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said. “But what really killed me was going away for college, and coming back and seeing how the changes had accelerated.”

A desire to share the story of climate change through music led Burtner to develop two broad methodologies, which he described at AGU as “sound casting” and “sonic physiography.”

Sound casting collapses the vast spatial dimensions of Earth science data, allowing all of the noises associated with, say, a melting glacier—from the flow of water atop ice to the creaks and groans taking place within it—to be heard at once.

Sonic physiography, meanwhile, alters the dimension of time, stretching it out or slowing it down to fit the wind or the rain or the flow of water from mountains to sea into a tempo that’s melodious to human ears. In the case of his glaciers, Burtner “time stretches” the sounds in order to pick out specific tonal signatures.

“We’re basically trying to pull apart the sound in to its various characteristics,” Burtner explained. “Once we can pull the things apart, now we have an ensemble of instruments made of the glacier.”

Once Burtner assembles the data and pitches it all into the range of human hearing—a process known as sonification—the entire glacier can be heard at once. “The thing is completely alive—it’s a symphony all by itself,” he said. “It’s incredible.”

Of course, being an artist, Burtner doesn’t just leave it at that. After he’s got his sonic data assembled, adjusting space or time to create something that feels musical, he adds a layer of human interaction.

Of course you’re curious. Here’s one of his compositions:

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