Sea of Troubles

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

As human systems affect the Earth’s oceans, the oceans in turn affect life on land. The oceans function as the Earth’s climate system, pumping heat and moisture around the globe. Ocean currents regulate the temperature and precipitation on the continents, shaping the climate. Climate change has drastically affected the health and function of our oceans.

The ocean’s role in climate change is explored by many contemporary artists who take on the topics of melting glacial ice, warming seas, storm surge, flooded coastal cities and ocean water pollution. These artists communicate the science of these environmental issues in an accessible visual manner, and consider science, exploration and activism as a key part of their art.

As those familiar with the fundamentals of global warming know, the root cause is the warming of the earth due to the increased emission of greenhouse gases. The burning of fossil fuels releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it traps heat. The earth’s oceans absorb most of this excess heat.

The effect of this extensive heat absorption on the oceans is drastic. As the temperature of the oceans rise, the seawater expands, resulting in rising seas. This sea level rise is one of the most dramatic consequences of global warming, flooding land and infrastructure, particularly along coastal areas.

Warmer temperatures also precipitate the melting of the glaciers and the enormous ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica. As the ice melts a huge volume of water is added to the oceans, causing the sea levels to rise drastically.

Diane Burko, Landsat Jakobshavn B, 2015. Oil and Flashe Paint on Canvas, 42″x72″.

Melting glaciers have been the focus of artist Diane Burko for several decades. She has investigated geological phenomena throughout the world in collaboration with research scientists, and has undertaken expeditions to some of the largest remaining ice fields.

Large-scale series of paintings and photographs document the disappearance of glaciers. Her painting of Greenland’s largest outlet glacier (Landsat Jakobshavn B) depicts a glacier that has receded over 40km in the past 100 years.

Diane is an environmental activist and has been a keynote speaker at scientific conferences such as the American Geophysical Union, and she is written about in scientific journals such as Scientific American. She considers her environmental work as an integral part of her artistic practice.

Global warming also affects oceans by increasing water vapor in the atmosphere, resulting in more precipitation and stronger storms. These storms developing at sea, such as Katrina, Harvey and Sandy Super storms, are becoming more cataclysmic every year.

The deluge that comes with warming waters is forcefully depicted in Marina Zurkow’s video installation Dreams of the Deluge.

Marina Zurkow Elixir I,ii,ii,iv. Series of four works(4) 5:00 minute loops. Dimensions variable; custom framed 24″ monitor with MPlayer for 1920×1080 projection or monitor.

Zurkow is a founding member of the “Dear Climate” project. She and her collaborators are trying to encourage personal engagement with the climate to change the way both the science and the thinking around climate change is communicated. The project is deeply rooted in research, scientific fact, and data collection.

In this essay, “Crossing the Waters,” author Michael Connor writes:

“Marina Zurkow’s recent works in video problematize our relationship with images of apocalypse…. But Zurkow’s floods, unlike most apocalyptic imagery, are not purely dreams, allegories, or devices; they are based on natural science research, on the calculations of supercomputers that project present ocean temperatures into an uncertain future. They refer not only to the future, but to the recent past of extreme weather events.”

Resa Blatman, Drenched and Overgrown (detail), 2016. Oil and Latex paint on hand- and laser-cut Mylar, PETG, and Lexan, 108h x 234w x 10d inches.

Global warming also increases ocean acidification and affects the environment. Much of the increased carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the ocean. This disruption causes severe problems for marine species and vegetation.

Artist Resa Blatman says her current paintings and installations speak to issues surrounding climate change within the natural environment and in particular the oceans.  Her dazzling painted laser cut and cut mylar installations are about oceans, living and dying vegetation in the oceans, and the fragile environment.

More intense storms amplify ocean storm surges, resulting in inundation and destruction. Storm surges are the increased rise in seawater due to the storms. The destruction is predominantly along coastal areas as super storms charge up the coast.

The clash between rising seas and built infrastructure is the focus of my work. Much of the devastation is due to water activity, including intense precipitation and floods. My aerial view paintings explore the consequence of building along fragile coastal ecosystems.

Lisa Reindorf, 6 panels Storm Surge, 2017. Oil and gel on Metal Panels, 96” x 64”.

Much of the work addresses the obliteration of the natural world to make way for cities — and the obliteration of cities by the natural world. There is an inherent conflict between nature and building. Nature has created its owns systems, and anytime we build or put in infrastructure, we’re interfering with that. The environment strikes back- with storms and rising seas. In the multi panel Storm Surge, waves and rising seas inundate a coastal city. Some of the structural grid is unmoored and floats out to sea.

I am is an active member of the Citizens Climate Lobby and speak at environmental conferences and symposiums on the conflict of infrastructure and rising seas.

As we become more aware of the precarious nature of our habitat, this work highlights the extreme vulnerability of the oceans. The world’s biggest metropolises are located along coastal areas. The calamities wrought by climate change compel us toward a greater sense of ecological justice.

The topic of climate change and the oceans is extremely complex. Artists can convey visual information in their work, connecting scientific information with human insight in a manner that engages the viewer. Additionally, many artists, including the ones described above, are involved in environmental organizations that are concerned with educating the public and protecting our oceans. A few of these organizations are listed below.  I encourage you all to join one, become more informed, and contribute to the excellent work being done.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
The Ocean Foundation
Ocean Conservancy
And many others!

(Top image: Lisa Reindorf, Ocean Invaders, 2017. Oil and gel on 6 Metal Panels, 96” x 64”.)


Lisa Reindorf is an artist, architect and environmental activist. Her work concerns the collision of architectural systems and natural systems, as it relates to Climate Change. She has a BA in Design of the Environment from the University of Pennsylvania and received her MA from Columbia University. She was also an instructor at RISD. She is represented by Galatea Gallery in Boston, and has exhibited extensively in NY, California, Mexico and Europe.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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