Deb Ehrens

Marine Heat Wave Studies

What a privilege and pleasure it has been to work with physical oceanographers Dr. Caroline Ummenhofer and Dr. Svenja Ryan on a collaborative process to create an artistic interpretation of their research.  These climate scientists are studying the movement and chemistry of the ocean water and the winds that determine our climate. Their tools are massive data sets and sophisticated computer modeling software.


In her quest for ever bigger data sets, Caroline Ummenhofer is working with a historian from the New Bedford Whaling Museum to extract weather information from whaling logs. It fascinates me that a log entry from 1821 can become a meaningful datapoint in 2021.


Svenja Ryan studies Marine heat waves (MHW) off the New England coast.  A marine heat wave is an extreme event in the ocean in which temperatures are significantly above the norm. MHW can have an enormous impact on coastal communities and ocean ecosystems. In the oceanographic world MHW are the “new kid on the block.” They have only recently been “discovered” since the data sets became available.


Books, technical papers and podcasts have also helped me understand the nature of Svenja and Caroline’s work. We have spoken in depth about the challenges of communicating big ideas and numbers in meaningful ways. But it took understanding their personal motivations to realize what I was going to create. “What gives you the ‘wiggle’?” I asked them. “What is the driving force that makes you dive into these massive data sets, travel to polar regions, and seek new data sets from the past?” For both it is the thrill of discovery.  And then it hit me: these scientists are the modern-day versions of the naturalists/explorers who went off to the New World seeking new species.


To convey the work of these modern-day explorers I decided that I had to make something big because physical oceanographers work with big ideas and big data. It would have to move and convey how the past informs the present. The result will be a Marine Heat Wave sculpture of moving fabric panels.


The two pieces in this exhibit are studies for the panels. The base layer in all the panels is a standard color gradient used to convey oceanographic data such as depth, temperature, salinity and location.  Atop the gradient, I built a layered story that includes: text from whaling logs which will become data points in new climate models; naturalist drawings to represent some of the many life forms significantly impacted by MHV; graphs; satellite images; and the computer code that finds and defines Marine Heat Waves.


Caroline and Svenja’s research has a deep connection to New Bedford’s past and present, and a special significance to me. This is where I grew up and the history of the “City that Lit the World” is part of my DNA.