By Patrick Rogers
Sky Opening, a new sculpture embedded in the woods of northern Michigan, is as stark and dramatic as its name sounds. A visitor approaching from an old logging road that leads through pine trees as tall and straight as telephone poles is suddenly confronted by a stab of light and air that slices through the dark shade of the forest. Rising from the ground in a narrow clearing are dozens of tree trunks. They range in height from just about eye level to 90 feet tall, all sliced at an angle and bloodied with the red flagging paint used by loggers. Together, these 150 trees form a ceremonial entry that swoops toward the ground and then rises back up to the treetops and the welcoming sky.
Like all the sculptures by Bay Area artists Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick, Sky Opening is a visually arresting act of environmental remediation. "We've been involved in environmental restoration long enough to know that the science and engineering can be brutal," said O'Brien. "Our belief is that it doesn't have to look brutal."
Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick working on "Line of Defense" in Venice, Louisiana.M. Verdin
McCormick, who studied with James Turrell (an icon of the Land Art movement), and O'Brien, a University of California, Berkeley–trained sculptor, are deeply committed to conservation. Their large-scale sculptures are often made of organic materials that will blend into their surroundings over time. In landscapes ranging from Nevada's desert riverbeds to Louisiana's flooded marshes, their sculptures buttress riverbanks and shelter wetlands from erosion with wattles of cottonwood that do double duty as nesting sites for migratory birds.
The duo's grand entrance into the boreal forest in northern Michigan is the first step in the planned clearing and replanting of 10 wooded acres owned by the Interlochen Academy of Arts. This forest was once a mix of conifers and hardwood trees such as maple and ash and home to birds like the Kirtland's warbler, one of North America's rarest species. Not anymore. The industrial farming of nonnative trees, such as Scotch pine, has robbed the land of sunlight, water and windborne seeds needed for a diversity of plant and animal life. The dry soil under the thick mattress of pine needles doesn't support new growth. The only remedy now is to gradually rid the land of the pines and allow a mix of native species to return.
Sky Opening starts the process with an artistic statement. "That is the whole point of this piece," said Interlochen's director for visual arts, Mindy Ronayne, who was instrumental in bringing O'Brien and McCormick to the school's campus. "A clearcut is painful to see, but Dan and Mary make you look up at the height of the tress and the sun. They make you realize how bright the sun is compared to the deep shade of the forest, and to wonder how that has happened here."
In the bayous of Louisiana, where the land is slipping into the sea at a rate of a football field an hour, bald cypress trees act as buffers against storm surges and sea-level rise. Here, the artists collaborated with oil and gas industry workers, boat captains, hunters and fishermen to help defend the trees from damage by boats and nutrias, invasive rodents with a voracious appetite for cypress saplings. Repurposed crab cages protect the young trees from being eaten by nutrias, while tall poles of native river cane topped with colorful pennants alert boaters to the vulnerable saplings' presence in shallow flooded fields, some of which were former cow pastures.
"Line of Defense," 2014, Venice, Louisiana.Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick
"We have about 50 trees still there, now strong enough to withstand the nutrias," said O'Brien. "It's just a small version of what's needed down there, where the state is saying to plant trees like crazy. A drop in the bucket. But we have the community involved."
The sculptures take time to do their jobs, and community buy-in is important. William Fox, a curator at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, knows O'Brien and McCormick from their work on five sculptures set in Nevada riverbeds. As Fox puts it, "Art is how you build that culture of caring for place. It takes people knowing the place and telling stories about it. It means having a connection. And Mary and Dan bring people to those places."
"Woven Flood Plain Wall," 2014, on Nevada's Carson River. Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick
In the end, that matters more to the artists than making a permanent mark on the landscape. O'Brien said others in the art world don't always understand what they're doing and will ask how it feels to have their art disappear. "Our work isn't a bronze in the museum, I tell them, but it doesn't disappear. It kicks off the restoration cycle."
And sometimes, McCormick added, "it's a 100-year cycle."
Avian Habitat Resource Sculpture, 2015, McCarren Ranch Preserve, Patrick, Nevada.Mary A. O'Brien
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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