Turning science into music to find common ground and inspire

A man plays a trombone
Photo courtesy of Michael Bucy
Juneau composer Michael Bucy plays the trombone.

If climate change was a song, what would it sound like? Alaska composer Michael Bucy has an answer to that question.

Warming oceans, melting ice and disrupted jet streams came to life in his original composition performed in Juneau earlier this winter.

Complex changes in the Bering Sea inspired the musical representation, which Bucy set to music with the help of University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist Vladimir Alexeev. 

We can imagine ways to musically convey the sounds of ravaging storms or melting ice. Making music from the intricate and multifaceted processes revealed by science poses a more subtle challenge. Patterns offer a bridge — music and science both explore them using math. In doing so, they help us understand and relate to the world around us.

Bucy and Alexeev started with data. Alexeev shared measurements showing rising ocean temperatures in the Bering Sea. He explained that warming conditions disrupt the global circulation systems and trigger feedback loops that speed up climate change. From there, Bucy set about creating a cast of characters to tell the story. 

The instruments, rhythm and key worked together to depict each character. Slow and undulating sounds represent the historical Bering Sea, with cool waters and seasonally predictable sea ice. Flourishing woodwinds  illustrate the jet stream that normally arches along the Aleutian Islands and affects the winter weather we expect to see across Alaska, like rain in Juneau and cold winters in the Interior. Increasingly urgent bursts disrupt these timeless sounds to signify the story's villain.

Musicians during a concert in Juneau.
Photo courtesy of Michael Bucy
Musicians play Babel 2.0, a musical representation of climate change in the Bering Sea, during a concert in Juneau in November 2021.

According to research published in the journal Nature by Alexeev and his Japanese collaborators in 2019, warm air rising off the Bering Sea is shifting the trajectory of the jet stream farther north. Cascading effects are felt globally, like in the winter of 2017-2018 when extreme cold blanketed eastern Canada and Asia. Alexeev equates the jet stream to a river, and the warm air rising off the Bering Sea to a rock in the river’s midst. 

“The ‘rock’ sends standing waves upstream and downstream,” explained Alexeev, a climate scientist at the UAF International Arctic Research Center. “In the Bering Sea, the warm blob ripples the jet stream, which makes some places unusually cold and others unusually warm.”

The urgency in Bucy’s music accelerates as the piece nears its end, signifying impending danger as the climate system shows signs of collapse. He hopes the rising alarm notes will help the listener experience climate change in a new way, ultimately inspiring them to act. 

Babel 2.0, as the piece was named, was first performed by the Juneau-based Con Brio Chamber Series. It was accompanied by Marta Lastufka, who sang a poem by Guy Unzicker likening the disruption of the jet stream, by the column of rising warm air, to the biblical destruction of the Tower of Babel.

“I feel like Vladimir is doing something super important,” said Bucy, who is a middle school music teacher and part of the Juneau Composers Consortium. “If we can do a little something to help get his information out, add some emotion to it, that feels very, very meaningful right now.” 

Bucy and Alexeev were brought together by Kaja Brix, a program director in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska office and an affiliate faculty member at the International Arctic Research Center. Brix, who is engaged in the Fairbanks science and Juneau music worlds, began brainstorming ways to connect these diverse communities. 

Photo of Vladimir Alexeev.
Photo by Vishnu Nandan.
Vladimir Alexeev in Norway while teaching a summer school in 2017. Alexeev is a climate scientist who studies changes in Alaska’s Bering Sea and other Arctic regions.

“Our goal became connecting people and communities, telling the story of a changing climate that impacts each one of us in Alaska,” said Brix. “We thought music could help do that, exposing people to climate science in a way that doesn’t require reading a science paper. Music can inspire us, it’s accessible, and it brings people together.”

Babel 2.0 is the first of several planned musical representations of UAF climate change science by the Juneau Composers Consortium. Upon the series’ completion, concerts will be held in both Fairbanks and Juneau. 

Alexeev’s research was funded by NOAA and the National Science Foundation.