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These Artists Covered A Glacier In A Blanket To (Temporarily) Save It

Do we want to live in a world where we have to cover everything beautiful to keep it from disappearing?

In a summer or two, climate change might turn the highest mountain peak in Sweden into the second highest. For the past two decades, the 40-meter-thick glacier on top of Kebnekaise mountain has been shrinking, on average, a meter every year.

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In 2014, as Swedish news stories about the glacier multiplied, artists Lars Bergström and Mats Bigert decided to do something about it. “We thought this would be a good symbolic gesture—to go up and try to save this small peak,” says Bigert. They climbed the mountain and installed a reflective blanket at the top, to keep the snow a little colder and prevent it from melting.

The project is the third in a series of art projects that looks at geoengineering and the human desire to control the climate and weather. As the artists started researching ice, they read about attempts to slow the ice melt on the Rhone glacier in Switzerland by covering it with blankets.

“Mainly, it’s the ski resorts that are trying desperately to cover up these areas of ice, which are just disappearing,” says Bigert.

As a short-term fix, the art project in Sweden seemed to work. Though it’s hard to say definitively if it was because of the small blanket, the peak grew another foot for the first time in 25 years.

Rescue blanket for Kebnekaise

“Basically, this would work,” he says. “But it’s also difficult—who’s going to do that operation every year? This is more of a pointing a finger at the problem. I guess it would work if you put a huge chunk of Styrofoam over Greenland as well. It would probably be difficult. But that’s what we’re interested in—if you have this escalating climatic change, which obviously isn’t slowing down, we might just have to do these sorts of speculative, technological quick fixes.”

In an installation up at a Stockholm gallery through February 14, the artists are exhibiting a group of objects created to raise questions about geoengineering. A human-size model of the top of the glacier lets people walk through the middle. “If you go into a glacier and really look on the inside, like the anatomy of a glacier, it’s so fascinating, with these layers, that each represent a year,” Bigert says. “So you really get a sort of skeleton or exoskeleton of the glacier. That’s what we want to get at.”

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Another image shows the glacier superimposed with photos of the sky each day the artists were on the peak and meteorological symbols. “We’ve been looking at the transformation from the use of mythology—gods that you would give sacrifices to, to please them for better weather scenarios, and how we’ve replaced that with modern science,” Bigert says. “For us, most of these projects, it’s about control, and our obsession with controlling our living situations, which in the end isn’t really possible, but we’re getting better and better at it.”

If it takes shiny blankets to save what’s left of the world’s ice, will people still want to climb mountains? “If we have to make all this weird intervention with nature, then what’s left of nature? People go there in order to experience this very beautiful site, so if you start to manipulate that, it becomes almost a prosthesis or something else,” he says.

It’s not clear, either, how long blankets can keep the inevitable from happening. At the ski resorts in Switzerland, the melting has slowed, but it hasn’t stopped. “It’s almost like ice is this endangered element,” Bigert says. “I don’t know what the prognosis is now, but a friend of mine is up on Kilimanjaro, and I think they gave Kilimanjaro maybe this century out.”

All images: courtesy Studio Bigert & Bergström

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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