My friend Lydia and I both received a seasickness pill when we were handed our whale watching tickets in Reykjavik. Arriving on the boat, we immediately put on the wind and waterproof full body suits – just in case. I was a little skeptical about the whole thing. As our boat trip guide, Miquel Pons, said “Whales are free animals” and there are no guarantees of seeing them. But my doubts vanished into thin air when we actually saw three humpback whales, which alternately swam very close to the boat and elegantly appeared on the surface briefly and disappeared again waving their fins. Surprised and delighted by this experience we sailed back, not realizing that there was some swell, as I was so deep in my thoughts about these beautiful animals.
We got some information about the complex communication of whales. Miquel called them “Love songs”, but in fact it is not known exactly whether the songs they utter are for mating purposes or serve some other purpose. However, it was observed that different songs are sung in different geographical regions. It is believed that whales, like humans, have their own dialects and languages - depending on the region. But also, that they will learn from each other and carry on these “love songs”. Australian researchers have found that these have a fixed direction of travel – with few exceptions – from west to east. Hence songs that were observed on the Australian coast were later discovered in the regions further east such as New Caledonia, Tonga, American Samoa or the Cook Islands. It is a puzzling phenomenon how this occurs, for it is unknown whether a small group of whales migrates on and teaches other colonies, or whether other populations along the way learn from them.
How is it that these highly intelligent animals, obviously possessing very sophisticated navigation and communication systems, are stranded on the coast and perish en masse? In addition to the factors that humans exert on the animals, such as noise and water pollution, it is assumed that the modifications in the earth’s magnetic field can have an impact on them. In anatomical studies, scientists found that different species of whales have small amounts of magnetic material in their brains. These findings indicate that whales have the ability to perceive the earth’s magnetic field and use it to orientate themselves in the oceans. Whales are increasingly getting lost in the North Sea when high levels of solar activity have been observed, which affect the Earth’s magnetic field.
As much as Earth’s magnetic field affects life on the planet, it is difficult to explore such an unpredictable phenomenon. Drastic changes seem to have taken place in recent decades, the North Pole is currently moving more than 50 kilometers across the polar sea, and the strength of the magnetic field is decreasing. This also has an impact on navigational instruments, such as the ones on airplanes, causing an effect called variation, when it comes to the deviation between geographic and magnetic north. With larger aircrafts, the deviation is automatically programmed so that the pilots receive the correct data for their routes. However, on smaller aircrafts, pilots must calculate this annual adjustment themselves and new maps are issued for each year. The earth’s magnetic field shift is therefore noticeable even for humans and has effects on them. The increasing speed is making scientists nervous, but it is impossible to say exactly what will happen in the future. Are we facing a pole reversal soon, or will it still be a long time coming?
Pole shifts have occurred four times in the past one million years. From a human perspective, it is difficult to imagine that there was a time when east was west, and north was south. This phenomenon can best be observed on trees, but the analysis of lava can also be interesting here, because it records the prevailing geomagnetism at time of the eruption of the volcano.
The Icelandic artist Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir was guided by a geophysicist to a place where she could find different stones from different geological periods. These are documents of a time when the geomagnetic fields were arranged differently from how we know them today. She arranged found objects in an installation entitled Transmission and fixed a compass needle over them so that visitors can also see that the magnetism of these stones is different.
A stone from the mountain Skálafell in the highland area called Hellisheiði is about 0.8 million years old and the compass needle points north. Another one is taken from the mouth of a river on the outskirts of Reykjavík and is about 2 million years old, the compass needle here points south. The third stone originates from the mountain Skálamælifell, located not far from the volcano Fagradalsfjall that erupted last year and is about 92,000 years old. This rock documents a magnetic anomaly when the magnetic poles were around the Earth’s equator. The needle here points west.
Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir’s work contains performativity exploring the interaction between the elements and their mutual impact. She questions agencies and her own position. In some cases, she takes the role of the observer, in others she documents and captures moments of transition, or induces processes. Watercolors accompany her installation called Nonsystematic Mapping. The colors, which consist of minerals, already have an electromagnetic polarity in themselves, which means that the colors also take on their form through gravitation. The artist lets the elements act on their own and observes the new landscapes that emerge. It seems like an invitation to step out of our own active role. There will always be things that will remain incomprehensible to our human brain.
Within the discussion about the geomagnetic shift of the poles, the lack of clarity regarding the mutual influence remains: Is the increased speed of the polar shift a consequence of global warming, such as the melting of glaciers? Or is it exactly the other way around? Is it the change in geomagnetic fields that has an impact on climate conditions? In the cycle of nature, movement and transformation is the rule. It may be fatal from a human perspective when agricultural conditions have to be adapted to the new climatic conditions, and when people are forced to move away because the place where they live is no longer habitable.
Of course, there are aspects within the climate change that function independently from human influence, but, this of course is not an excuse for environmental pollution and a ruthless exploitation of resources. A radical rethinking is required as described in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. The Climate. It demands an adjustment of market conditions and more control, which not only should, but must curb the greed for more profit and growth. If this does not happen, according to Klein, there is a risk of climate-related disasters under which the system would collapse anyway. “To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.”
“It’s human nature to want to hold onto the things that are dear to us” says the curatorial statement for the exhibition Status Check curated by Kristína Aðalsteinsdóttir & Þorvaldur Sigurbjörn Helgason. The interdisciplinary exhibition at Gerðarsafn Kópavogur Art Museum invited artists and writers to explore their personal, subjective experience of the present, consciously abandoning the concept of time as a linear concept. Among those involved was a writer who addresses climate change. Jakub Stachowiak wrote a poem entitled Climate Emergency. It describes the danger of turning a blind eye to something that is unstoppable:
„Animals kiss sunless greenery
Lend it their light
Through the roots
And out the four corners
Of the world
Stuck in our own beforetimeswhining
Stuck in our own butwhatifwading
We see nothing
We hear nothing
Nothing nothing nix”
 Sarah Zielinski, Humpback Whale Songs Spread From West to East, in Smithsonian Magazine, accessed 14.04.2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/humpback-whale-songs-spread-from-west-to-east-176855840/.
 Roland Knauer, Sonnenstürme verwirren Wale, in Der Tagesspiegel, 11.09.2017, accessed 14.04.2022, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/magnetsinn-sonnenstuerme-verwirren-wale/20311756.html.
 Definition Variation (Navigation), accessed 14.04.2022, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variation_(Navigation).
 The Nordic House on the exhibition Time Matter Remains by Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir, accessed 14.04.2022 https://exhibitions.nordichouse.is/exhibitions/time-matter-remains-trouble/artists/anna-run-tryggvadottir.
 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York: Simon&Schuster, E-book, 2014), p. 587.
 Walltext by Kristína Aðalsteinsdóttir (transl. Larissa Kyzer) from the exhibition “Status Check: A Flat-Pack IKEA Time Capsule” (02.04. – 29.05.2022) at Gerðarsafn Kópavogur Art Museum.