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ADS7: Transboundary Geo-logics – Politics of the Atmosphere

Tutors: Elise Misao Hunchuck, Marco Ferrari & Jingru (Cyan) Cheng

Pyropolitics

"Our situation today is that of neither land nor sea; updated for the twenty-first century, the central political elements are the dyad of air and fire."—Michael Marder [1]

We have entered the age of megafires. On the morning of September 9, 2020, the sun rose—as it always does—but on that day the sky above northern California and Oregon dimmed to a dark orange hue as smoke from hundreds of fires in the Sierra Mountain range was carried up and out to the Pacific coast by the same heat-induced dry winds that encouraged the fires as they began. The katabatic Santa Ana winds in the north pulled air down from the high elevation deserts, while the Diablo winds to the south were pushed out towards the coast, the result of sinking air.

The combination of these winds and the topography of northern California generously coated with fuel-loads of vegetation—at its driest after warmer and warmer summers—amplified wildfires into megafires. These same winds carried the fire's soot particles as they travelled through the atmosphere and mixed with marine moisture—fog—rising from the sea. This temporary union obstructed the lower spectrum of sunlight and produced an uncanny, sunless backdrop to iconic portraits of San Francisco’s Bay Area. Countless images circulated, sweeping across social media, while the fine-grained data of the hazardous air quality condition supported by a network of citizen-owned sensors were distributed through platforms that aggregate and visualise air-quality data. In just a matter of days, the same smoke that was recorded both in its visual effects and its particulate composition migrated across continents and oceans, as new satellite images and health warnings from weather apps travelled to the East Coast, to Canada, and across the Atlantic to Europe, and then, to northern Russia.

Just a few months before, in June and July, the wildfire season peaked in Arctic Russia. Where the North American fires feed off phytomass (trees and other vegetation) on the Earth's surface, the Siberian fires consume fossilised biomass from the subsurface; peat. In just two months, the fires of Siberia released more carbon dioxide than in any fire season since 2003 when data collection [2] began. (This estimate is based on data compiled by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service [CAMS], which incorporates data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer [MRIS]).  The same fire that burns through the surface and subsurface of the Siberian taiga does something else, too. As the fire rages through the peat, it also warms that which is just below; the Siberian permafrost, already thawing due to climate change.

Permafrost, by definition, is soil, rock, or sediment that has been frozen for more than two years, with its temperature staying below freezing throughout the year. In theory, it is frozen in perpetuity. But with the Arctic, including most of Siberia, warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, any augmentation of this effect—a wildfire, for example—acts like a splicer, making its way into an already operating system, creating a positive feedback loop, amplifying the changes already underway. 

As the ground thaws under the thermogenic pressures of fire and the climate’s rising temperatures, the organic material in these ancient carbon sinks begin to decompose, releasing carbon, methane, nitrous oxide, which leak out of the earth and make their way into the atmosphere. This decomposition is made possible through microorganisms that move into the soil, and they, through their anaerobic activity, produce even more heat, releasing even more carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous dioxide into the atmosphere, and forming yet another positive feedback loop. The processes of erosion and subsidence start to destabilise the terrain. As gases bubble through the ground and as bodies of water gather on the surface of the earth, the landscapes of this region are being changed—in most cases, drastically. Sinkholes are appearing, shorelines are crumbling, slumps are displacing layers of sediment, and thermokarsts are emerging from the land. The earth heaves and falls, twisting and destroying homes and barns, splitting open underneath asphalt roads, lifting the dead, in their graves, back to the light of day. The migration patterns of animals, the daily lives of humans—all are changing in the face of this changing landscape.

This vast region of permafrost—it covers an estimated two-thirds of Russia’s landmass, and extends down into the Earth to depths reaching just over 1.5 kilometres—is transforming rapidly from being the largest carbon sink to one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. What if, instead of concerning ourselves with how to put carbon back into the ground, we focused on how to keep it in the ground in the first place? Confronted with the extraordinary range of Siberian permafrost, ADS7 sees an opportunity to question our primary assumptions about what it means to engage design in practices of stewardship, and imagine a mobilisation of attenuation and care towards our environments through permafrost and other soils.

A Transboundary Experiment

ADS7
This zoogeographical map presents the distribution of wildlife species across the then Soviet Union. N.M. Buchunov, Zoogeographical map of the USSR, 1928. Source: Library of Congress
"People look at trees and think it comes out of the ground, that plants grow out of the ground. But if you ask where the substance comes from, you find out—where does it come from?—trees come out of the air! The oxide in the air goes into the tree, changing it, kicking out the oxygen, pushing the oxygen away from the carbon, and leaving the carbon substance with water. Water comes out of the ground, you see, only how did it get there? It came out of the air; it came out of the sky. So, in fact, most of the tree comes out of the sky." Richard Feynman [3]

"In general, I like trees. But here, they are against our theory." —Sergey Zimov [4]

This year ADS7 will focus on Pleistocene Park located in the Siberian Arctic as its point of departure. Led by Russian scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov, Pleistocene Park is a geoengineering project that aims to restore the mammoth steppe ecosystem with its extinct animals that disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, or the last glacial period. Herds of Yakutian horses, moose, bison, musk oxen, reindeers, yaks and others have been gradually introduced to the park since its establishment in 1996, close to the mouth of the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia. The woolly mammoth—if successfully resurrected—and Asian elephants—if successfully genetically modified—are to join them in the future. A high density of these large herbivores will expand pastures at the expense of the taiga: the animals extirpate trees and trample snow while grazing, thus reducing the insulation provided by snowfall during the winter and maintaining lower temperatures on and below the ground. Their working hypothesis is that a restored grassland ecosystem in the northern hemisphere might slow the thawing of the Siberian permafrost, the largest extant carbon reservoir in terrestrial ecosystems. The albedo effect of grasslands—which absorb less sunlight than the darker canopy provided by trees—will further protect the permafrost during the summer months, while grass roots sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it away, into the soil and out of the reach of forest fires. [5]

Wrongfully conceived as Terra Nullius for much of modern history while also serving as a place of exile and deportation, Siberia—and Russia—has a long record of ignoring its habitation by [6] [7] indigenous peoples as well as the dispossession and deprivation of land and political rights. The marginalisation of indigenous tribes and their alienation by Russian settler-colonialism produced the conditions for the “discovery” of Siberia as a territory of resource extraction, first of gold and then of coal, oil and metal ores. Soviet anti-nomadic and literacy policies further complicated this situation, erasing smaller tribes and ethnic groups from the map.

If Siberia was deemed empty, remote, and unproductive, the steppe regions along the western and southern borders of the USSR, on the other hand, were the focus of one of the largest geoengineering projects of the twentieth century. Between 1948 and 1953, Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature mobilised all natural and geographical sciences for the realisation of over-ambitious goals of agricultural productivity. It led to the transformation of vast expanses of land due to a basic understanding of landscape ecosystems, and the design of monumental territorial interventions to avoid soil erosion by wind and water. [8]

How can we think about large-scale interventions to mitigate the current crisis that takes the feedback loops of the global climate as an opportunity for design, but situate themselves outside the logic of the nation-state system in order to address planetary issues on the long term? Can the soil and permafrost be the instruments of this different approach to geoengineering? ADS7 will consider sites in and around the Siberian Arctic as sites of potential expansion and development of Pleistocene Park. Referred to as possibly ‘the largest project in human history,’ the park can also serve as a productive backdrop for informed design speculations, oriented towards a future broadly aware of the interactions between the atmosphere and the ground, focused on carbon capture methods, permafrost conservation and restoration, and an understanding of soil within the global dynamics of atmospheric circulation. Against such a backdrop, Pleistocene Park is a site of intervention into the Arctic atmosphere through the restoration of an extinct biome on and in the ground. The strong feedbacks between herbivory, the grassland ecosystem, carbon-rich permafrost and global warming are, without doubt, intricately non-linear. And it is here, from such deep entanglements that we seek out radical visions of climate solutions and new planetary imaginaries.

Forest loss adjacent to the Lena River (light grey) due to wildfires in the Sakha Republic between 2000 and 2018 (from yellow to bright red) and in 2019 (highlighted in cyan). Source: Global Forest Change/University of Maryland.
Forest loss adjacent to the Lena River (light grey) due to wildfires in the Sakha Republic between 2000 and 2018 (from yellow to bright red) and in 2019 (highlighted in cyan). Source: Global Forest Change/University of Maryland.

Grounded Speculation

This image, compiled in 2019, shows permafrost thaw as evidenced by the proliferation of water bodies on the surface of the earth along the Kolyma River in the Sakha Republic. Source: USGS/NASA Landsat.
This image, compiled in 2019, shows permafrost thaw as evidenced by the proliferation of water bodies on the surface of the earth along the Kolyma River in the Sakha Republic. Source: USGS/NASA Landsat.

“Thoughts, methods, and their associated technical systems play out in equal parts with one another in fits and starts, exchanging glances, alternatively bearing the immense weight of practice with its ravenous desire for definition, categorisation, and clarity. In the cool distance that separates our ideas and devices from the terrain we occupy sits a measurable haze, ever-increasing in depth and opacity as we struggle toward knowledge and technologically multiply the scale and character of our perceptual field. It seems worthwhile now, under the thunderclouds of our baroque moment, to wander through that haze, looking all the while to illuminate the incompossible details of those figured enigmas, the thing and the world.” John J. May, “Sensing: Preliminary Notes on the Emergence of Statistical-Mechanical Geographic Vision (Perspecta 40 “Monster”, 2008). [9]

Politics of the Atmosphere is a multi-year, transdisciplinary investigation into the relationship between the air and the ground. As the domain where different vectors of the current climate crisis meet and interplay and where conflicts around its policing are emerging, the atmosphere also produces multiple localities where these transformations can be observed and understood and sites of intervention can be imagined. Far from being understood in all of its complexity, the atmosphere continues to elude our ability to model its dynamics or to compute future scenarios. This year, ADS7 continues in its attempts to question and drift from current understandings of planetary-scale ecosystems and their metabolisms.

Last year, we began by examining China’s Tian He (Sky River) project, a large-scale weather modification project whose goal is to address the ongoing and increasingly severe water shortage in North China through the extension of water resource extraction into the air. This attempt to claim and manipulate atmospheric water as a resource is derived from the recognition that groundwater resources in China’s Huang He (Yellow River) watershed have reached their limit alongside increasing tensions over cross-border water resources. Through the lens of this project, we looked at how state plans to govern waters, and climate change is leading to the rise of a new planetary imaginary, extending well-known concepts of land sovereignty into the domain of the atmosphere.

This year, within the context of the Siberian Arctic, we will continue our inquiry into the modification of large-scale ecosystems, the notion of peripheral territories (with their long histories of prolonged inhabitation), and their relations with global climate dynamics. We will primarily study permafrost—our planetary storehouse of ancient organic matter, where, locked underground, there is two times the amount of carbon than there is in the atmosphere.

Various interconnected and overlapping flows of migration are driven by this climate crisis. These include the boundary of continuous permafrost moving north, following the retreat of the minimal mean annual isotherm that can keep the ice in the ground; boreal forests populating regions above the Arctic Circle, following the (warming) shifts in temperature; indigenous communities forced to relocate with the collapse of ecosystems, and, damage to infrastructure and buildings caused by the thawing permafrost. Offshore, both above and below the open waters of the Arctic Ocean, the disappearance of sea ice defines future geographies of extraction: polar shipping routes shrink even further the schedule of global logistics, while the tectonics of a previously inaccessible seabed are surveyed for the redefinition of continental boundaries and lucrative hydrocarbon fields.

How might we situate ourselves within these flows? Can we avoid the consequences of the degradation of the thermal gradient of the soil, with the mass displacement of flora, fauna, and human population that results? The consequences of the thawing Siberian permafrost will reverberate through the global climate in ways that we simply cannot foresee. How can we negotiate with this thickening surface in order to avoid the acceleration of these feedback loops? To avoid the thaw of permafrost—and the consequent release of immense quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—is of fundamental importance to prevent catastrophic climate change. Policies and solutions to increase the amount of carbon stored in the ground could serve to disrupt the feedback loops that will be triggered by the melting of the underground ice in the Siberian Arctic, but how can this be achieved through projects that are not State-led, but organised from below? How can we understand not only these but any feedback loops as a site of architectural intervention? How can we engage with ecosystem restoration at the long timescale of climate dynamics?

A New Cartographic Imaginary

The landscape of the village of Usun-Kyuyol in Yakutia, Russia, is disfigured by thermokarsts, caused by the shifting temperatures underground. Source: Emile Ducke for The New York Times (2019).
The landscape of the village of Usun-Kyuyol in Yakutia, Russia, is disfigured by thermokarsts, caused by the shifting temperatures underground. Source: Emile Ducke for The New York Times (2019).

ADS7 will examine a site of amplification—the Siberian Arctic and Pleistocene Park—where the material dynamics of the atmospheric system are accelerating ecological transformations. While exploring the political use of cartography and planning, the studio will outline the ways in which vast areas of the planet are being transformed through the combined action of climate change, state planning, new forms of infrastructure, and geologic agents.

Operating as a collaborative working group, ADS7 will produce a systematic study of the Siberian Arctic and Pleistocene Park. Together, we will situate and unpack feedback loops within their ecological, political and social contexts, unpacking the deep entanglement between these agents of the Earth—bacteria, flora, fauna, humans, minerals, soil—to explore scenarios in which these geological agents can be recognised as the political actors that they already are.

Following group research in Term 1, individual projects in Term 2 and 3 will focus on one specific, local intervention or a point in a feedback loop. To consider feedback loops as an architectural domain is to situate local interventions within planetary metabolisms. Instrumentalising alternative cartographies and models for architectural and landscape-based mediations, ADS7 works to rethink ideas of space, time and agency at the local and planetary scale through grounded speculations. 

We will work closely with cartographic and statistical datasets, historical documentation, engage in conversations with scientists and members of environmental agencies, study the perspectives of indigenous communities and the work of activists and local researchers that document the impact of these decisions on the territories they inhabit. The studio will aim to produce new ways of visualising ecological processes both through mapping and detailed design outputs, all the while maintaining a speculative and rigorous approach.

Our developing understanding of the atmosphere and its dynamics will guide us as we determine sites of intervention: how can the local be produced in continuity with the understanding of planetary systems? From the numerical modelling of climate predictions to the analysis of underground traces of past climates (worlds), the atmosphere will be studied as an architectural domain where the issue of scale—both across time and space—will be central. The studio will map the main components of the atmosphere by questioning the very nature of the spatial structures and metaphors that used to represent it; by considering the ways in which data are collected, and models are designed in order to visualise its multiple dimensions; by analysing the infrastructure through which it is sensed and measured. The atmosphere will be studied both as a physical and infrastructural space, both up, into the air, and down, into the ground. Observatories, sites of data collection, weather modification facilities and their operational networks will be investigated as tools to advance—or subvert—political and economic agendas. 

The impact of atmospheric phenomena on human settlements and relationships will provide a necessary social dimension to our research. How might forms of cohabitation—between humans, and between humans and non-humans—produce solutions to unprecedented changes in the climate, overcoming established patterns in territorial governance and replacing traditional juridical understandings of sovereignty? The concepts of climate injustice, rights of nature and climate grief will be fundamental nodes in our reading of current geopolitical landscapes. At the same time, nineteenth-century assumptions on the use of resources and the organisation of space based on territory will be reimagined in order to design new cartographies of the future atmosphere. A diverse network of external contributors (artists, designers, researchers, scientists and theorists) will join the studio through lectures and external reviews, sharing lenses through which we will look together at this set of issues in different ways. 

Representation will be central to the development of the studio’s methodology and will be used as a primary form of enquiry. Maps, drawings, and data visualisation will be combined and explored as tools to bridge the gap between the global understanding of climate dynamics and local manifestations of its effects. The climate crisis can also be considered an architectural problem in as much as it is a crisis of representation. In an era when geopolitics is being heavily shaped by the unpredictability of ecological processes, a new visual language is needed to visualise these patterns and their relationships.

Tutors

Elise Misao Hunchuck is a Berlin-based researcher, editor, and educator trained in landscape architecture (MLA, Daniels, Toronto, CA) and philosophy and geography (University of Toronto, CA). Her transdisciplinary research practice—with sites in Canada, Japan, China, Europe and Ukraine—employs cartographic, photographic and text-based methods to document, explore, and archive co-constitutive relationships between the materials, resources, infrastructures, natural processes, humans and more-than-humans. By considering landscapes political ecologies, her work develops co-constitutive understandings of landscapes and environmental design. She is an editorial board member for Scapegoat: Architecture/Landscape/Political Economy, a Senior Researcher and Teaching Fellow in the Landscape Architecture program at The Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL, London), and a lecturer at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design (University of Toronto). 

Marco Ferrari is an architect, co-founder of Studio Folder, an agency for visual design and spatial research based in Milan, Italy. Since 2012, the studio has been developing projects both for cultural institutions and private clients, working across the editorial, digital and exhibition domains while pursuing autonomous research paths that explore the politics of representation and the visualisation of information. Together with Andrea Bagnato and Elisa Pasqual, he is the author of A Moving Border. Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, a book based on Studio Folder’s long-term project Italian Limes, jointly published by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City and ZKM Karlsruhe in Spring 2019. Between 2011 and 2013 he was the Creative Director of Domus magazine and served as a regular graphics editor for Abitare magazine from 2007 to 2011. He has been teaching Methods and Tools for Representation at ISIA Urbino since 2010 and led an Information Design studio at IUAV University in Venice between 2013 and 2016. He is an adjunct visiting professor at Columbia GSAPP. 

Jingru (Cyan) Cheng is a design researcher operating at the intersections between architecture and anthropology. Cyan’s wide-ranging research and practice are driven by an urge to unsettle the domination of all those constituted as others, i.e., diverse ways of cultural knowing and being, non-canonical histories and socio-spatial models, and alternative cartographic imaginaries. Currently a design tutor in MA Architecture (ADS7) and postdoctoral research associate at the Royal College of Art, Cyan holds a PhD by Design and an M.Phil Projective Cities from the Architectural Association in London. Cyan’s doctoral work on Chinese rurality received a commendation by the RIBA President’s Awards for Research (2018). Her postdoctoral research centres around the idea of the collective, the construct of collective subjectivities, and the socio-spatial design of community. Cyan’s work has been exhibited at Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics (2020-21), Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019), Venice Architecture Biennale (2018) and Beijing Design Week (2016), among others.


Footnotes

  1. Michael Marder, Pyropolitics: When the World is Ablaze (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), 4.
  2. This estimate is based on data compiled by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), which incorporates data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer.
  3. Richard Feynman, explaining fire in 1983. YouTube, accessed September 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1pIYI5JQLE 
  4. Ross Andersen, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park,” The Atlantic, April 2017,
  5. “Pleistocene Park Foundation,” Pleistocene Park Foundation (website), https://pleistocenepark.org. 
  6. Carl Zimmer, “Who Were the Ancestors of Native Americans? A Lost People in Siberia, Scientists Say,” New York Times, June 5, 2019.
  7. Ivan Sablin and Maria Savelyeva, “Mapping Indigenous Siberia: Spatial Changes and Ethnic Realities,1900–2010,” Settler Colonial Studies 1:1(2011): 77-110.
  8. Denis J. B. Shaw, “Mastering Nature through Science: Soviet Geographers and the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, 1948–53,” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 93, No. 1 (2015): 120-146.
  9. John J. May, “Sensing: Preliminary Notes on the Emergence of Statistical-Mechanical Geographic Vision,” Perspecta 40 “Monster”: The Yale Architectural Journal, ed. Marc Guberman, Jacob Reidel, and Frida Rosenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 51. 

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