Ethnography and the annual sea ice minimum

I’m currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder Colorado. The press release announcing the annual sea ice minimum was sent out today and has been picked up in places such as the Washington Post  and the Toronto Star. Here’s a pretty cool gif that visualizes the annual growth and decline of Arctic sea ice, as recorded by satellites since 1979.



For my fieldwork, I’ve been chatting intermittently with members of the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis team. They are the folks who compose the blog that provides a public analysis of near-real-time sea ice data, the Daily Image Updates, an interactive sea ice visualization, and the press release and gif linked to above. As Janet Vertesi writes in her superb ethnography of the NASA Mars Rover project, scientific visualizations, whether of Mars or of Arctic sea ice, are produced as social accomplishments. Here at NSIDC, the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis team consists of not only scientists but also software developers, data managers, technical writers, and media and communication specialists, all of whom must coordinate their activities with each other (and several outside institutions) in order to successfully produce visualizations of sea ice.

Thus far I’ve conducted about a dozen formal qualitative interviews at NSIDC, and over the next little while I’ll be writing up my analysis and checking it with the people I’ve interviewed. Speaking in general terms, one of the reasons I find sea ice such an interesting and vital topic is because it is the material foundation for ways of life of Arctic Indigenous peoples, as documented in places such as the Inuit (siku) Sea Ice Atlas (and as I wrote about in 2014 for TOPIA: The Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies). So when we look at scientific visualizations of sea ice, it’s not only the impact of anthropogenic climate change that we are seeing, but also a prompt to consider the ethical-political question of what it means to be acting with geophysical force, a geophysical force that is disrupting people’s homelands.