Patricia Macdonald | Considering melting ice

'Change of state’ series: Melting ice, Lunan Lochs, Scotland, 2003

In October and November 2021 two crucial international conferences – one on the damaged state of ‘nature’, and one on climate change – took the centre of the global stage: the UN Biodiversity Conference (Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15, Part 1), in Kunming (virtual), from 11 - 15 October; and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, Glasgow, 31 October - 12 November (COP26). The two topics dealt with in these separate conferences are closely interconnected. It is only due to our human need to divide up the present single global-scale crisis to make it comprehensible that were being discussed separately – nature recognises no such divisions.

How do we feel now about melting ice?  

In this, the second part of a three-part feature (of which the first appeared in October, and of which the third was published later in November), Patricia Macdonald (University of Edinburgh and Aerographica consultancy) takes as starting points some further examples of her aerial photographic artworks from the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, to consider environmental issues relating to climate change and biodiversity in the contexts of a series of key Scottish landscapes – the focus this time being the subject of melting ice.

We are all familiar with the ice that forms on the surface of lochs and rivers, and even on inshore parts of the sea, when the weather gets cold enough in winter in Scotland and other temperate northern (and southern) countries. And when the weather warms up again in Spring, as we know, the ice melts and cracks. Sometimes, after a long period of low temperatures – more typical of polar and northerly latitudes than of temperate ones – the ice forms in a particularly dramatic way, heaping itself up into layered ‘ice dunes’, as seen in the main image here, made above Loch Leven as it begins to thaw and crack after a long spell of intense cold. Such periods are predicted – counter-intuitively – to become more common here due to global heating.

This photograph is at once a record of a physical process (‘change of state’) as the ice melts, and a depiction of eerily astounding natural beauty. It also has considerable and complex metaphorical power in terms of how we feel about ‘the frozen’, and the process of thawing. And these metaphors are overlaid in this image by other powerful symbolic forms – of the female and the male – the dark, pubic, wooded island, punctured by the pale, rectangular tower, trapped together in the surrounding expanse of frozen water. And yet further metaphors accrue here for those familiar with Scottish history, since this island was one of the prisons of the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots (whose enduring symbol is the silver ‘luckenbooth’ brooch, darkly tarnished here, in the shape of a twisted heart). 

Castle Island and cracking ice, Loch Leven, Scotland, 1987 from Shadow of Heaven (1989)

In the past, the metaphors most commonly associated with freezing and thawing – whether in artwork images, or in story, have emphasized, in psychological terms, the positive aspects of thawing – just think of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale The Snow Queen, and its more recent adaptation in the film Frozen, which became, from its theatrical release in 2013, the highest-grossing animated film of all time, only being overtaken in 2019 by the remake of The Lion King (more symbolism there, perhaps, for those inclined to see it…)  

Another of Patricia Macdonald’s artworks in the NGS collection is the triptych: Change of State: Melting Ice, No. 1, which further explores the metaphors of freezing and thawing – the feelings associated with the idea of warm winds blowing through a frozen psyche, releasing pent-up frustrations and generating energy and creativity.  

‘Change of state’ series No.1 (triptych): Melting ice, Loch Moraig, Forest of Atholl and Loch Mathair-Eite, Rannoch Moor, Scotland, 1990 from Airworks, 2001

In the first frame of this triptych, seen on the left, the melting ice is cracking in a violent way, with the dark leads of open water raking the frozen surface like a clawed foot; in the third frame, on the right, by contrast, the feeling is of liberation and the gestures of a joyous dancer (reminiscent of the dynamic figure in Barbara Morgan’s celebrated composite photograph Spring on Madison Square, of 1938). And the central image is what Sara Stevenson, former Chief Curator of Photography at NGS, has presciently described as ‘a place of potentiality’. But there is little question here that the result of the melting of the ice is linked to positive feelings of Spring arriving and of life beginning again.  

But in the changed world of today, all this is perhaps in the process of becoming much more complex. Now, in this new Anthropocene epoch of climate change, global heating and the threat posed by the melting of the world’s ice-caps and glaciers, do we still feel quite the same about the idea of melting ice? How are we to reconcile the conflicting feelings that it now arouses? It is impossible yet to say – Spring still retains its powerful image of rebirth. But thoughts of the land that will be drowned by rising seas, and of the local consequences, for western Europe, of the failing of the Gulf Stream – just two likely consequences of melting ice in Greenland and in Antarctica – as well as the loss globally of the livelihoods of all those who depend on the gradual release throughout the year of essential water supplies from what once seemed eternal mountain snows, are adding a whole new dimension to the feelings we experience when we see a chunk of ice changing state into a trickle, and then into a flood, of meltwater.

Patricia Macdonald: Patricia & Angus Macdonald in light aircraft in flight – shadow self-portrait (Brockenspectre) on cloud
Robin Gillanders: Angus & Patricia Macdonald

All photographs © Patricia & Angus Macdonald unless otherwise credited

About the author: Dr Patricia Macdonald FRSE is an environmental researcher; an Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art; and an eminent artist-photographer best known for her powerful aerial imagery, made in collaboration with her partner in the Aerographica consultancy, Professor Angus Macdonald, also of the University of Edinburgh. Her work is exhibited and published internationally, and held in public, corporate and private collections worldwide. She is the author/co-author of more than ten books/catalogues and numerous articles. Her most recent book, as author and editor, is Surveying the Anthropocene: Environment and photography now (Studies in Photography, in collaboration with Edinburgh University Press, 2021, in press).

Explore further works by Patricia Macdonald on the National Galleries of Scotland website
Follow updates on the Aerographica website
Find out more about Surveying the Anthropocene: Environment and photography now



Recognising an urgent need to play our part in combating the climate and ecological emergency.

1 November 2021