Sandboxes and Seedlings Print
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
July 2018

The Frost Museum of Science holds its first climate change exhibit

WPix_GoingGreen_7-18hat if Andrea Bowers’s neon sculpture, Climate Change Is Real, now at the entrance to the Pérez Art Museum Miami, were suddenly slapped on the front of the Frost Museum of Science?

Somehow it would seem more provocative, controversial, even shocking. Just what Miami needs.

Bowers, a Los Angeles-based artist and activist, chose a fun Miami color scheme -- the cursive Real, with its pulsating cotton-candy pink -- to get our attention. But we need more than that to get us to look up from our mojitos.

Transposed to the Frost, her sculpture could be ratcheted up a bit to read: “Climate Change Is Real, Bitches.”

Alas, we’re starting out more gently, with sandboxes and mangrove seedlings.

This summer the Frost debuts its first sea level rise exhibit on the third level of the Dive area with kiosks that include live mangroves and a 3D topographic “sandbox” that lets visitors contour landscapes with intruding seas. The sandbox is equipped with motion-sensing cameras that show elevation changes in real time and how water flows over the landscape. When you flutter your fingers over the make-believe land, you can also make it rain. A lot of rain, as in biblical rain -- only for real now, with climate change.

“Some people think the water will come into the city,” says one little girl playing with the sand. “But other people aren’t so sure,” her friend responds hopefully, as they both mold snow-capped mountains and sandy plains surrounded by a neon blue sea.

The Frost’s sea level rise exhibit focuses on the positive side of climate change -- our ability to adapt -- with a nod to natural systems that can protect us when the water comes.

The good news: The worse predictions about the effects of sea level rise are based on taking no action. But as a community, we can tackle sea level rise. The better we adapt, the better our outcome.

Adaptation comes in the form of resilience that uses “green infrastructure” like mangroves and coral reefs to help coastal cities like Miami combat storm surge and beach erosion.

There’s even a mangrove growing in a clear box, where tangled prop roots that are below the water surface in the wild can be examined at eye level. Here we learn that mangroves “reduce wave height, wind speed, flood and damage by storm debris.” (Too bad we’ve cut down most of them for those awesome waterfront views.)

With the three-level aquarium bubbling in the background, another section of the exhibit focuses on the breakwater capacities of coral reefs, which can reduce incoming wave energy by about 97 percent and wave height by 84 percent.

Unfortunately, our Caribbean coral cover has declined by 60 percent since the 1980s. The warming of the oceans from our burning of fossil fuels has resulted in deadly coral bleaching. We’ve also managed to decimate corals with pollution and blasting to make way for larger ships. But the exhibit helpfully points out that scientists are working on reseeding corals and that some may even be more heat-resistant. So there’s that.

A more somber message comes from the film Dynamic Earth, playing in the museum planetarium. It’s a short film about Earth’s climate system, our life-support system. Without our delicately calibrated climate, there is no life on Earth and we get this terrifying alternative: Venus. This is the planetary equivalent of “Earth gone wrong,” the film tells us, where carbon (CO2) emissions run amok and the atmosphere is a toxic mix of noxious fumes. Until now, Earth has kept CO2 in balance by absorbing and releasing in equal amounts, we learn. Unfortunately, that balance is shifting as we burn oil and coal stored in Earth for millions of years.

“Since the industrial revolution, CO2 released into the atmosphere has increased by 40 percent, with most of that happening in the last 50 years, causing global temperatures to increase by one degree Celsius,” we are told.

Yes, it’s us behind the curtain and we’ve made a mess of our climate system.

Apply that to the 3D sandbox in the sea level rise exhibit: The snow on the mountains that those girls built? It melts, the plains incinerate, and the water comes in.

The film ends in a cliffhanger, with this question to contemplate: “Is it our goal to spend Earth or to save it?”

Stay tuned.

Climate change is a complex issue with long-range impacts and a decidedly doomsday ending no one in fun-loving Miami wants to dwell on. Telling its story through museum exhibits and hands-on learning, films, and sandboxes is a worthy endeavor, one that might determine if the sequel to Dynamic Earth has a happy ending for us or not.

In the meantime, know this: Climate change is real. And no amount of cotton-candy neon pink can sugarcoat that hard truth, wherever it’s told.


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