UKESM1 on the Catwalk

Andrew Yool1 and Sally Lee2

1National Oceanography Centre,  2Artist

One of the main reasons why scientists develop Earth system models (ESMs) like UKESM1 is to make “virtual reality” versions of the Earth’s future that experience different amounts of climate change. These then help scientific organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provide information to governments and the public about the climate and how it might change. The IPCC does this through its regular Assessment Reports (ARs), the most recent of which, AR6, was published during 2020-2022 in three volumes. These summarise the science, impacts and mitigation of climate change, and do so across the whole Earth system, including its living components.

These computer-simulated futures vary primarily in their emissions of carbon dioxide ( CO2), but do so following “storylines”, known as Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs). These storylines differ in how technology, development and international cooperation interact together to make different CO2 pathways that range from the “sustainability” path of SSP1, in which cooperation and technology transfer sees the whole world switch to renewable energy and environmentally friendly policies, through to SSP5, in which fossil fuel consumption continues apace.

As part of AR6, UKESM1’s marine biogeochemistry lead, Andrew Yool of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, performed an analysis to look at how changes in marine productivity might affect the animals that live on the ocean’s seafloor, the benthic zone. Unlike the surface ocean, where abundant algae make up the base of the food web, deep seafloor animals are instead dependent on food sinking to them from the surface. So while these animals might appear at first to be isolated from the effects of climate change at the ocean’s surface, this dependence ties them into it. However, despite the biodiverse deep seafloor biome making up the largest fraction of total Earth area, these ecosystems are typically ignored in Earth system models.

To study how they might change into the future, the amount of food sinking to the seafloor in simulations of UKESM1 across the range from SSP1 to SSP5 was used to drive a separate ecosystem model of the animals living there. This model, BORIS, describes the ecosystem as a spectrum of differently sized animals, focused on those between 1 microgram to 30 milligrams, approximately from nematodes to sea cucumbers. These simulations of BORIS found that, while marine productivity in UKESM1 might only be modestly impacted in the surface ocean (-6%), this change was amplified down the water column, resulting in much larger declines in animal abundance at the seafloor (-30%).

The Working Group II of the IPCC used these results as part of their AR6 report on the impacts of climate change (Chapter 3, “Oceans and Coastal Ecosystems and Their Services”), presenting them alongside the changes in algae, zooplankton and animals such as fish in the ocean (Figure 1). The drastic scale of the changes in seafloor animals caught the eye of Australian artist, Sally Lee, who was developing ideas for work to be presented at the Mandurah Wearable Art Showcase held recently and its Exhibition to be held early next year in Western Australia.

Figure 1: Change in the abundance of phytoplankton (row 1), zooplankton (row 2), animals (row 3) and benthic animals (row 4) for two end member scenarios, SSP126 and SSP585. The results from BORIS are shown in row 4.

Former exploration geologist Sally had originally come upon the work of the IPCC from a series of outreach talks at the Western Australian Museum Boola Bardip in 2021 while studying fashion at the nearby North Metropolitan TAFE. In the first of these talks, entitled “A Call to Climate Action”, Sally was moved to hear the speaker Bill Hare note that the most recent IPCC report, AR6, would be the very last one where climate change was reversible. After a second talk on climate and the arts, entitled “Creative Energy / Reimagining Worlds & Rediscovering Hope in Culture & Arts”, Sally was left feeling that fashion was absent from a seat at the table and could play a role in science communication.

Sally started to follow the work of the IPCC through the media and, when an opportunity arose for collaborative work as part of the Mandurah Wearable Art Tertiary Pairing Project, posed the idea of an Earth-related theme to her “partner in art”, Larissa Baglieri, a fine arts student at LCI Melbourne. Larissa heartily agreed, and immediately started weaving a cloak from upcycled materials. This “Grim Reaper”-like cloak was to become symbolic of the “Zooplankton Resurrection” – the use of oil and gas by our current society. In the meantime, Sally investigated suitable mapping solutions to draft the accompanying dress.

During her time as a geologist, Sally used geographical information systems (GIS) and loved the visual communication power of maps. Fashion is another medium for visual communication, so the idea to combine the two genres to create a map dress started to take shape. Flicking through Annex 1 of Working Group II’s part of AR6, Sally’s eye was caught by maps showing greater than 30% drops in the abundance of seafloor animals between the Pilbara area of North Western Australia and Madagascar, even under the smallest climate change. References to the source data were provided, so Sally commenced a series of “pesky” emails to Andrew, lead author of the relevant paper. She was incredibly pleased he responded and was willing and able to introduce her to this biogeochemical “Underworld”, and to provide a bridge from oceanography and climate science into digital mapping and ultimately fashion.

In a lengthy email exchange over a period of weeks, Sally discussed the results with Andrew, as well as the underlying ecological, ocean and Earth system science. The dual role of plankton both in the ecology of the ocean and in the production of the fossil fuels that are now changing the Earth was particularly significant. They also discussed how scenarios are used in IPCC work, and Sally ultimately selected an upper mid-range scenario, SSP370, for her work. This scenario (Regional Rivalry) is one in which “resurgent nationalism” and increased conflict play a role.  This resonates with current events, and Sally was drawn to it by the clear impact on the (relatively) pristine Southern Ocean, home to many species familiar to fellow Australians. Working collaboratively in parallel with Larissa on the other side of Australia, Sally designed and fabricated the pictured dress in ocean friendly biodegradable silk, with a silk underdress. A dynamic grid of black silk covered polyester boning represents carbon in a highly interconnected world to accompany the dress, yet is held separately. Larissa’s cloak incorporates biodegradable weavings of mixed fibres, performance art and a base of green repurposed polyester quilting. (Figure 2). Polyester, a petroleum biproduct, conceptually links marine organisms affected by climate change, the fossil fuel products responsible for it, and the role of the ancestors of those marine organisms in the formation of those fuels. Their joint exhibit is entitled “Zooplankton Resurrection,” and the artists statement is reproduced in full below.

Figure 2: “Zooplankton Resurrection” by artists Sally Lee (dress) and Larissa Baglieri (hooded garment). This collaborative project was presented at the Mandurah Wearable Art Showcase 2022 in Mandurah, Western Australia and will be exhibited in 2023. Photograph by Stephen Heath.

This international collaboration into the world of textile art and design continues UKESM1’s engagement with the arts. Previously, UKESM1 has been inspirational in the worlds of poetry, graffiti art and even music.

Zooplankton Resurrection (Joint Artists Statement)
From nothingness, a “Big Bang”, Earth formed and soon the first organisms, phytoplankton or “plant wanderers”, inhabited the oceans, collecting energy through photosynthesis and producing a habitable oxygenated atmosphere for later life including humans.
Phytoplankton feeds zooplankton, the “animal wanderers” including crustaceans which feed larger marine life.
Ancient plankton fell to the seafloor, sequestering solar energy in the layered source rock we now hungrily resurrect as oil for energy, plastics and polyester. Affecting earth’s balance, climate change results.
Handmade processes include both weaving Zooplankton and pattern making Resurrection, both with biodegradable fibres and textiles made from polyester, once organisms in our early oceans.

Sally Lee and Larissa Baglierhi