Andrea Polli

Andrea Polli is a digital media artist living in New Mexico. Her work addresses issues related to science and technology in contemporary society. She is interested in global systems, the real time interconnectivity of these systems, and the effect of these systems on individuals.
She currently works in collaboration with atmospheric scientists to develop systems for understanding storm and climate through sound (called sonification). Recent projects include: a spatialized sonification of highly detailed models of storms that devastated the New York area; a series of sonifications of climate in Central Park; and a real-time multi-channel sonification and visualization of weather in the Arctic. She has exhibited, performed, and lectured nationally and internationally and recently spent seven weeks in Antarctica on a National Science Foundation funded project.

listening to the poles

The Poles are on the front lines of climate change.  Known as the planet’s refrigerators, they circulate cold air that drives many of the weather systems in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.  The Arctic has experienced unequivocal warming leading to accelerated melting over the past ten years, but the complexity of climate science makes even this aspect of climate change difficult for the layman to understand. The politicization of the climate change issue has caused a cascade of misinterpretations of scientific findings in the media, and the translation of scientific language to general language has become an increasing problem within the mainstream media.  In the public climate change debate, the voices of scientists directly involved in climate research need to be present to help to break down the language barrier between science and the public.   But what of the voice of the Poles themselves?  Can the soundscape of the Poles and the translation of Polar environmental data into sound (i.e. data sonification) provide insights into climate change?  Can the intimacy of sound bring people closer to these desolate and isolated places that are so important to the Earth’s climate cycles?

Historically, since the first successful transatlantic radio communication by Guglielmo Marconi and his assistant George Kemp in 1901, sound transmission has contributed greatly to the public imagination of the Poles. In 2007/2008 during the International Polar Year, I spent two months working alongside and interviewing weather and climate scientists in various locations throughout Antarctica, listening and recording the soundscape and listening to and creating sonifications of environmental data.
I first wanted to learn how long-term and recurring residents of Antarctica experienced the soundscape, so I held an open sound recording workshop at the most populous station on the continent, McMurdo station on Ross Island.  My goals for conducting this ‘sound walkabout’ included sharing my enthusiasm for listening to soundscapes and learning about the Antarctic soundscape from people with different perspectives who had spent a significant amount of time living there.  The workshop attracted a diverse interdisciplinary audience, from carpenters and physicists to architects and boiler technicians.  Each participant brought a unique perspective and identified a special place they wanted to record.

Interdisciplinary listening
Participants in the sound walkabout workshop were representative of the highly interdisciplinary community in Antarctica and in informal interviews after the experience, participants spoke about being inspired not only by observing and interacting with the Antarctic soundscape, but by the rare opportunity to interact with people outside of their field.  This interdisciplinary interaction is highly valued by many of the climate scientists I interviewed.  For example, Dr. Andrew Fountain, the head of the Antarctic Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project spoke of the importance of interdisciplinary interaction in advancing climate science: “To really understand the system you can’t rely on just atmospheric science because there’s interactions with the ocean, the land the ice sheets—the biology in the oceans and on the lands. …this whole interdisciplinary world is critical for us to understand how the system is working. Until you really find that integration, you don’t really understand the system.  You understand a part of one component.”
The soundwalkabout workshop sought to expand the interdisciplinary experience beyond interdisciplinary science collaboration to create an art-based data-gathering interaction between people from many different disciplines and background.  After the workshop, the group decided to share their listening experiences with the larger community by hosting a soundscape listening party.   I have also shared the listening experience with audiences outside of Antarctica through the blog and the audio CD Sonic Antarctica on the Gruenrekorder label.


Soundscape recording is a kind of environmental data gathering, and the climate science view that data becomes more valuable the longer it is collected applies to these soundscape recordings.  A longer-term establishment of in-depth workshops at McMurdo Station on creative radio production would serve to begin to change the culture of Antarctica to a more open paradigm that encourages collaboration. A cultural shift towards collaboration using sound could have a positive effect on the scientific work being done at the Poles.  In the context of the LTER, Dr. Fountain spoke of the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to occur over long time periods:

“It was really only after I can see what glacier or weather effects are on the solids and begin to ask them questions and then being to interact with them on their studies and vice versa, have them interact with me on mine in kind of a knowledgeable way, in a way that’s kind of comfortable for all of us to interact […] For me, it’s really broadened my view of what’s happening in the (dry) valleys […] Now I have a much wider perspective of how glaciers are part of the whole system.”

The soundscape is a part of the whole system of an environment and the interdisciplinary practice of soundwalking provides an alternative pathway for understanding that system.  The next section will provide examples of ways in which I discovered another kind of sound transmission, data audification and sonification,  being used by scientists for Antarctic research.


Commonwealth Met Station. Photo: Andrea Polli

The collaboration from the scientist perspective
While at McMurdo, I had the opportunity to interview and work alongside two Antarctic scientists who were making seismic audifications and sonifications.   Dr. Rick Aster was recording motions of the Earth’s surface on the volcano Erebus at various points and using that information to understand how the seismic waves, the solid-earth equivalent of sound waves, bounce around inside the volcano and also how they are generated by eruptions. He was transforming signals from Erebus with a lowest harmonic frequency of around 1 hertz.  He would speed up the signals 100 times to move the information into the audible band, and discovered musical sounds like horns and whales.  He and his collaborators Dr. Douglas MacAyeal at the University of Chicago and Dr. Emile Okal at Northwestern University discovered that these musical sounds come from iceberg tremor signals.  In an interview, Dr. Aster told me about what he found significant in these audifications:

“I’m a guitarist so I was very interested in the harmonic structure of this [seismic information], I wanted to know what it would appear like.  So this of course, is also one way for me to think about the science when I hear these sounds because we all have a spectrum analyzer in our heads, especially those of us who have played music for a while.”

Despite the technological pitch-shifting process required to bring the seismic vibrations into the audible range, as evidenced in this quote, Dr. Aster clearly believes the seismic audifications to be a part of the natural soundscape.  Listening to the audifications influenced the scientific outcomes because the unusual sounds discovered by Aster and MacAyeal inspired them to place seismic instruments on the iceberg which allowed them to gather more detailed information about the structure of its movement.
Another Antarctic seismologist, Dr. Robert Smalley, was interested in listening to seismic signals, but in this case not by audification, or pitch-shifting the vibrational information, but rather by transforming the information into the amplitude and pitch of sine waves.   Unlike Aster, who was interested in the scientific potential of interpreting the resulting seismic sounds, Smalley was interested in the public communication of the seismic data.  He and I worked closely together while developing these sonifications and presented these experiments in the Antarctic soundscape concert.  This integration of sonification and audification with soundscape recordings has great potential to serve both scientific research and communication and is a rich area for further research. Several listeners expressed surprise at the sonifications and audifications, finding the audifications very similar to the Antarctic wildlife recordings also presented at the concert.  Other audience members talked about the feeling of being physically transported to the location where the sound was recorded. Like soundscape field recording, data sonification presents a rich area for blurring the disciplinary boundaries between art and science. 

The collaboration from an artist perspective
While in Antarctica, I collected a large amount of data from climate and weather scientists and later created a series of sonifications of this data. The resulting Sonic Antarctica recordings combine field recordings of the human and natural Antarctic soundscape, sonifications of weather and climate data including data from weather stations, weather balloons and ice movement.  The structure of the CD loosely follows that of a radio documentary, as described by Aurelio Cianciotta:

 “Polli alludes to the radio-broadcast format but develops a new audio-based art with a genuinely scientific basis and an aesthetically dense style.”


On the CD, humorous dialogue is combined with more serious discussion of climate change.  Henry Lauer finds this humor to be something that draws him into the subject as he writes:
“Thus I loved, for example, a geologist’s tongue in cheek explanation about how geology is the true prince of the sciences […] It’s pretty hilarious to know that scientists, especially ones so devoted to their work, can make fun of themselves. In general society science is seen as such a serious, straight-laced, stodgy and boring business.  This CD humanizes these folk quite beautifully and I really enjoyed the contrast between the warmth of the interviewees and the frigid realm in which they work.”
For Lauer, understanding the humanity of the scientists gave him a feeling of empathy for the politicization of their work:

“But the real power comes toward the end of the CD, when researchers talk about politics and the science of climate change. They express their dismay that all their hard work, their determination, sincerity and rigour, can be attacked, trivialised and dismissed in the political arena so easily and with so little concern for truth or consequence.  This is the telling point of this release: that here, in perhaps the coldest place on earth, researchers still feel the political heat for revealing the inconvenient truth of global warming. It is really powerful to hear their personal perspectives on this issue because these are perhaps the only people on the planet who have a full appreciation of the problem.”

The poles goes public
Sonic Antarctica merely scratches the surface of the vast amount of scientific research being done at the Poles, but it shows that scientists and field workers in Antarctica have an interest in recording and listening to the soundscape and to audifications and that sonifications of scientific data and that the combination of field recording, sonification and interviews with scientists can help members of the general public understand and empathize with the work of these Polar dwellers.


In an interview with the author, Dr. Andrew Fountain observed the need for longer-term interdisciplinary collaboration for understanding climate complexity.  Seismologists Dr. Rick Aster and Dr. Robert Smalley have found audification and sonification useful to their scientific research as well as beneficial to raising public awareness.  Projects like Sonic Antarctica provide alternative pathways to help scientists forge interdisciplinary collaborations and communicate their research to the wider world.  Once these pathways are open, however, they need to be extended in time.  A multi-year soundscape recording and radio production series of workshops and concerts that includes sonification could serve to enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and advance science in Antarctica, giving a voice to both the people living in these remote locations and the rapid melting occurring there due to anthropogenic climate change.
In conclusion, because of the complexity of the information and the misinformation in mainstream media, there is a need for more direct public communication of weather and climate science.   Sound offers a way for scientists to bring their messages directly to the public, by speaking to the public through recordings, web and radio transmissions and by collaborating on audification and sonification of scientific data.  Listeners often respond to sound with emotion and empathy for the scientists’ messages.  Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to the work of climate scientists in Antarctica, and sound transmission allows for communication and possibly collaboration across vast distances, especially near the Poles. For these reasons, the Poles offer an opportunity for innovative uses of sound transmission and this sound can contribute to the public understanding of climate change within the context of the Poles.


The project Sonic Antarctica's logo