Giving the Ice a Voice

Scripps collaborator Glenn McClure may look the part of an Antarctic explorer, but this musical composer strikes a new chord for a changing planet.

When it comes to climate change, a major struggle is merely getting people to listen. So UC San Diego researchers have gotten creative—collaborating with a musical composer to lend a voice to the ice of Antarctica.

It started scientifically enough in 2014, when a team led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Peter Bromirski deployed an array of seismometers on the Ross Ice Shelf, a 500-mile-wide region at the front lines of climate change. “Ice shelves protect land ice from reaching the sea, restraining the magnitude and rate of sea-level rise,” explains Bromirski.

The equipment captured the amplitude and speed of vibrations through the ice caused by crashing sea waves. Much like a pulse, measuring these vibrations can help assess the health—or structural integrity—of the shelf. The instruments even recorded the effects of a 2015 earthquake in Chile and resulting tsunami, which produced large land motions in excess of 20 centimeters.


“Continuous shaking of the ice shelf can affect ice shelf integrity and ice shelf evolution,” says Bromirski, “ultimately leading to accelerated sea-level rise.”

This is where the story takes a musical turn. News of Bromirski’s research caught the attention of composer Glenn McClure, a faculty member at SUNY Geneseo and Eastman School of Music. McClure approached the National Science Foundation and Scripps with the idea to turn the collected vibrational data into unique musical compositions—catching the ear of those who may not be so tuned to the effects of climate change.

“I’m very confident that Glenn’s transformation of the Ross Ice Shelf seismic data to a musical composition will produce an excellent symphonic work,” said Bromirski. “His plan to present his composition as orchestral and choral work will further awareness and draw attention to the importance of Antarctica’s ice shelves and the sea-level rise resulting from global warming.

Glenn McClure in an observation tank below the seasonal sea ice near McMurdo station. Photo by US Antarctica Program/NSF.
Glenn McClure in an observation tank below the seasonal sea ice near McMurdo station. Photo by US Antarctica Program/NSF.

As part of the project, McClure recently joined the Scripps-led research team on a 40-day expedition to retrieve the instruments—hard work that involved long days of shoveling in whiteout conditions. McClure will then use modular mathematics to translate the data into compositions that will be performed live throughout the country, as well as be incorporated into a forthcoming immersive exhibit at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

“When you’re trying to translate complex science to general audiences, you don’t want to start with a lot of text,” says Harry Helling ’80, executive director of Birch Aquarium. “So we connect our science to visitors by creating immersive experiences that are compelling and strike all senses. This leads to a learning cycle for people to understand both our science and their place on the planet.”


“I hope these musical compositions will allow a very broad audience to get excited about the material,” says McClure. “The more that we can help Antarctica tell its story, the better we all will be.”