PARIS, FRANCE — On an average day in Paris, the Place du Panthéon, tucked in the middle of Paris’ 5th arrondissement, buzzes with students and tourists alike, many scurrying through the square to class at the nearby Sorbonne or into the Panthéon, Paris’ secular mausoleum dedicated to distinguished French citizens.
But for the past few days, the Place du Panthéon has been a destination unto itself, transformed into the site of a climate-inspired art installation. The project, known as Ice Watch Paris, has turned the square into a massive clock, with 12 icebergs from the Greenland ice sheet arranged to represent the hours on the clock. Together, the icebergs weigh nearly 80 tons; due to rising global temperatures, the Greenland ice sheet currently loses thousands of similarly sized icebergs each second.
“Climate change is all very abstract, so we wanted to try to attempt to put some reality into the perception of this,” Minik Rosing, a Danish geologist and co-creator of the installation, told ThinkProgress. “Many of us live in an abstract world, where everything is thoughts and ideas and things we can talk ourselves out of. This actually a reality. You cannot talk yourself out of this.”
Minik, along with Ice Watch co-creator Olafur Eliasson, first had the idea for the installation ahead of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Copenhagen. Minik and Eliasson wanted to create an art installation that would confront observers with the scientific reality of climate change. Around that time, Minik explained, he heard of a few friends that were starting an ice company in Greenland. And while his friends were initially only planning to sell small bits of Greenland ice — for use in drinks and other applications — Minik had an idea. Together, he and Eliasson arranged twelve blocks of Greenland ice — equivalent to 100 tons — in front of Copenhagen’s City Hall to coincide with the final release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment report on climate change in November of 2014.
Minik said that he was most struck by the joy that the installation seemed to bring to people who saw it.
“[The icebergs] are beautiful, they remind us that nature is worth preserving in its own right,” Minik said. “The worst thing that can happen is that we lose confidence and give up.”
Simply getting the icebergs to Paris was an immense task. For days, workers around the Greenland ice sheet had to approach the icebergs via boat, choosing pieces of ice that had already broken off of the ice sheet naturally. Once the pieces were selected, they were lifted out of the water using a special frame that was submerged under each iceberg. Then, the pieces of ice were placed in a cold storage container — similar to what fish products are shipped in, Mink said — and sent first to Denmark via ship, then finally to Paris via train. Altogether, the process took a couple of months.
The Greenland ice sheet, which covers almost 657,000 square miles, is the second-largest ice sheet on Earth behind the Antarctic ice sheet. Together, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet contain 99 percent of the freshwater ice on Earth. These ice sheets formed millennia ago, as snow that fell in Greenland and Antarctica failed to melt, ultimately compacting itself into vast blankets of ice. Each year, some of this ice makes its way back to the sea, either as runoff from glacial streams or as icebergs that have fallen off of the larger ice sheet. But until recently, enough snow also fell on the ice sheets that the process basically offset itself, contributing little to global sea level rise.
But now, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating, and at a pace that perplexes even climate scientists. And all that melting ice could have serious consequences — scientists estimate that there is enough fresh water contained in the Greenland ice sheet to raise the global sea level up to 23 feet, enough to devastate coastlines around the world.
“Many people say, ‘If the Greenland ice cap is diminishing, aren’t you adding to the problem by taking these icebergs?’” Minik explained. “It shows that people lack a sense of scale. When you can tell people that one of these icebergs is what is being irreversibly lost, thousands every second, that should put some perspective on the magnitude of this process.”
But Minik hopes that, in addition to drawing attention to the issue of climate change, the installation gives people a chance to interact with something that they might not otherwise have a chance to see — real glacial ice.
“I think most people had never had an opportunity to touch real glacier ice,” Minik said. “It’s a very different thing from an ice cube.” Minik described the ice as “almost like a live animal,” each with their own unique color, sound, and feel. He said that he hopes people will interact with the installation viscerally, touching the ice or even drinking the water as it melts.
Eventually, the installation will melt under the Parisian sun, bringing the process full circle. Minik estimates that the icebergs will last through December 11, when the climate change conference is scheduled to end, but cautions that it could be sooner depending on the weather.
Regardless, he hopes that even in the face of melting ice, observers will come away with a renewed sense of hope.
“[The purpose] is not to instigate fear and gloom and doom, but rather to make people optimistic and happy,” he said. “I think that is very important in Paris these days.”