Under the Ice

A performance for live voice and computer, by Katrina Porteous and Peter Zinovieff

Wordsworth, Grasmere; live online premiere, Weds June 23, 7.30pm

Beneath Antarctica’s frozen surface lie vast mountains, valleys, lakes and volcanoes, landscapes more difficult to visit than outer space. ‘Under the Ice’, my new 30-minute poetry performance with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff, is a collaboration between poet, composer and scientists from Northumbria University’s Cold and Palaeo-Environments team, which takes the listener on a journey to this unseen world.

Intended for the non-scientist, ‘Under the Ice’ explores the science team’s cutting-edge research: the ‘remote sensing’ techniques used to investigate this secret landscape and to discern the movement of glaciers – in particular Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier, crucial to the understanding of climate change.

Scientists studying glaciers observe Earth’s smallest and largest phenomena: microscopic clues in the bedrock provide evidence of the glacier’s advance and retreat over vast timescales; air bubbles in ice cores reveal the composition of the atmosphere over hundreds of thousands of years; radar and satellite data supply information about the dynamics of the glacier and the ice sheet which feeds it.

Antarctica – image courtesy of NASA

What You Will Hear

For those interested in the science or in the structure of ‘Under the Ice’, here’s a little more detail from the poet’s perspective. (Please forgive any mistakes — they are all mine!). Our piece is in six sections. Part 1, ‘Slip’, is music only. Part 2, ‘Crack’, begins with an overview of Antarctica, the processes by which its ice sheets ‘endlessly replenish’ themselves, and the hidden, ‘inaccessible underworld’ of the continent’s bedrock. The poem goes on to explore the nature and role of ice on Earth, and the role of Thwaites Glacier in particular as a precarious buttress to Antarctica’s Western ice shelf. This section ends by imagining Antarctica without its ice – a state which has existed in geological time but not (yet) on a human time scale. Sediment cores taken from the seabed near Pine Island glacier shows us that 90 million years ago the vast continent was ice-free and forested. Catastrophic climate change has happened many times in geological history. Scientists studying Antarctica’s ice sheets are trying to understand more about the processes involved. This rocky world, for so long hidden beneath ice sheets, can now be mapped and ‘made visible’ by means of remote sensing techniques.

Part 3, ‘Float’, introduces a number of those techniques. They include satellite imaging such as LANDSAT, aerial mapping by drone, ‘LIDAR’ (light imaging and ranging), and ice-penetrating radar used to map the bedrock. A ‘fifth eye’, the human one, interprets the information gathered by these methods.

Part 4, ‘Crunch’, begins with lines about Beryllium-10, a Cosmogenic Nuclide used in dating techniques to determine the rate of the ice sheet’s thinning and recession. Beryllium-10 forms as a result of bombardment of the rock’s surface by cosmic rays which originate from high-energy supernova explosions. It is used to measure the age of moraines and glacially-eroded bedrock surfaces, and the extent of past ice sheet cover. The poem then moves on to a section about the interaction of glacier and bedrock, called ‘Basal Shear’. Glaciers flow downhill in response to their driving stresses, which arise from the weight of the ice and gravity. ‘Strain’ is the deformation of glacial ice in response to this stress. Basal Shear is the stress which causes the ice to deform and the glacier to flow. Basal shear stress varies across the glacier bed because glaciers flow over highly uneven, variable surfaces.

This section ends with a short verse called ‘Invisible Mending’. This is a response to research by Dr Kate Winter, Baillet Latour Antarctic Fellow at Northumbria University, who was based at Princess Elisabeth Research Station in December 2018 and 2019. Kate’s research centres on iron-rich sediments, carried by glaciers from inland areas of the Antarctic to the Southern Ocean, which are thought to encourage the growth of microscopic phytoplankton. These help to reduce Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As ice sheets thin in response to climate change, sediment delivery and production could increase. It is really uplifting to hear this positive story amid so much bad news about the climate.

Dr Kate Winter’s sediment samples from Antarctica (photo Jonathan Sanderson, NUSTEM)

Part 5, ‘Fall’, begins with a poem about ice cores. Deep ice cores drilled from Antarctica contain bubbles of air 800,000 years old, a record of Earth’s atmosphere and climate change over eight ice ages and at least one mass extinction. According to the British Antarctic Survey, these ice cores show that atmospheric CO2 levels are 40% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and that the magnitude and rate of this increase is almost certainly unprecedented over 800,000 years.

This section of the poem moves on to reflect on wave-forms on vastly different scales, from the immense planetary ‘waves’ of glaciation, to the tiny radio waves which humans use to penetrate the ice and map its bedrock. It is only in the intermission between geological waves of glaciation that conscious life has been able to develop on Earth. A section about the interpretation of data and the algorithms used in Numerical Ice Sheet Modelling is followed by a final reflection on planetary forces, such as atmospheric and oceanic currents which connect the smallest and largest phenomena. Warm ocean currents ‘hauled south’ undercut Thwaites Glacier, weakening it, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Western ice sheet. The closing lines of the poem return to remote sensing and information-gathering techniques, reflecting again in awe and wonder that human consciousness is able to gather and interpret this information. Where ice is ‘ubiquitous’ in the Universe, the ability to understand it seems vanishingly rare – possibly unique.

The final section of our piece, Part 6, ‘Melt’, is music only. Here’s a screenshot of Peter’s music for ‘Under the Ice’:

Music for ‘Under the Ice’

Peter Zinovieff’s music for ‘Under the Ice’ is intended for multi-channel live performance. Covid has postponed that possibility. In our Zoom webinar premiere, kindly hosted by the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, I will perform live to a stereo reduction of Peter’s music; so what you will hear will be a very different version of our piece. ‘Under the Ice’ was written during lockdown in 2020-2021, and all our collaborative work has been done remotely. While it could not be foreseen that its creation and premiere would be entirely remote and machine-mediated, it seems oddly fitting. The science, after all, focuses on ‘remote-sensing’ techniques in an inhuman environment. Everything about this piece is ‘remote’.

Neither Peter nor I has ever been to Antarctica, but Peter’s music for ‘Under the Ice’ is all derived from real sounds sampled from Antarctic glaciers by those who have. These include Kate Winter’s own recordings, as well as samples kindly contributed by sound artist Chris Watson and by Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow, Philip Samartzis (RMIT University, Melbourne). Many thanks to all three for their contributions.

‘Under the Ice’ is the 5th live performance piece Peter and I have made together. Our previous pieces include ‘Horse’, ‘Edge’, ‘Field’ and ‘Sun, the last three written for Life Science Centre planetarium, Newcastle. We also made ‘The Long Line’, an installation with fisherman and singer John Dixon and other members of the Northumbrian fishing community, for Historic England’s ‘Immortalised’ exhibition in 2018.

My performance on 23rd will be accompanied by a selection of satellite and aerial images of Antarctica, which I have compiled with support from NUSTEM. These images are courtesy of NASA, ESA (ISS), EUMETSAT, Imagens CBERS-4 / DSR-OBT-INPE.

‘Under the Ice’ is created as part of NUSTEM’s Exploring Extreme Environments project at Northumbria University, supported by STFC.

‘Under the Ice’ premieres on 23rd June, 7.30pm, as part of an online event hosted by the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere. The event also includes an ‘open mic’ on the theme of science. Tickets are £5, with five free tickets available to those experiencing financial hardship. Please click HERE to book.

Science, Imagination and Poetry

A panel discussion for York Festival of Ideas.

How can science, poetry and imagination combine to enrich each community’s ideas?

Expert speakers include poet-priest Malcolm Guite; violinist and composer Anna Phoebe; poet and historian Katrina Porteous; and internationally-recognised expert in interdisciplinary studies, Sam Illingworth of Edinburgh Napier University. The event is chaired by Tom McLeish, a physicist, interdisciplinary leader and writer from the University of York.

Cholmondeley Award

Very many thanks to the Society of Authors and to committee members Moniza Alvi, Drew Milne, Grace Nichols and Deryn Rees-Jones, for selecting me, in the illustrious company of Susan Wicks, Paula Claire, Maurice Riordan and Kei Miller, for one of this year’s Cholmondeley Awards.

This year has been such a tough one for everyone. Just getting through can sometimes mean losing sight of the creative life so essential to wellbeing. My feelings about being shortlisted at this particular moment are therefore especially acute.

I’m joyous because this award is completely unexpected. I’m always honoured when anyone takes the time to read my work. The fact that this recognition comes from other poets is especially important. Some of my poetry is intended for the local community that inspires it; some (like ‘Under the Ice’) to ‘translate’ the work of a science community to a non-scientific audience; some to conjure the ‘voices’ of a place to a radio audience, perhaps washing dishes or driving down the motorway. I studied History, not English Literature, at university, and since then I’ve mostly remained outside a ‘literary’ or academic setting. So this endorsement is a tremendous boost to confidence.

I’m simultaneously reflective because, as poets, we share a responsibility. Many things we once took for granted now feel uncertain: the quest for truth, for example; our delicate relations with one another; our precious, precarious ecology and place on Earth. This award from the Society of Authors strengthens my resolve to meet those responsibilities with every tool in a poet’s shed, as part of an invisible community. Thank you!


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