Ice cold: an ecosystem eats itself
July 28, 2015

Live Writing: The perilous cooling cycles of glaciers and fridges are woven together, as Milika Mutitu, Director of Cell Project Space, responds to our at the ICA Studio

Ecophagy is a term coined by Robert Freitas that refers to a literal consumption of an ecosystem; when out of control industrialised mechanisation consumes all matter on earth. When it replicates and literally eats the environment.


The Organic:

The last fully operational ice miner in the South American Andes lives in Ecuador. To collect ice each day he makes a treacherous journey with three mules from Riobamba, from the 2250m foot of the dormant 6300m Chimborazo Volcano, to reach the base of the glacier.

He starts his grueling ascent in the late afternoon, cutting and collecting thick dry grass from the preliminary foothills; some of this is used to make rope for the task ahead. Travelling through the night, in below freezing temperatures, he reaches the base of the snow line at dawn, on the edge of an enormous 3000m glacier over 350,000 years old. The edge is where the ice is hard and black with its top layer slowly dripping with mud and silt from exposed moraine. At 4600m the air is thin, with a 35% reduction of breathable oxygen; his pace is measured, precise and slow.

With the aid of a pickaxe and handsaw, the top layer is hacked away and removed. Large pieces of ice are carved out at each time, to meticulously craft six, half-metre cubes at approximately 25kg each. The dirt around them is chiseled off and then carefully insulated by wrapping with the pre-prepared grass. These are then secured tightly to the mules with the handmade rope, to quickly make a descent back to Riobamba to sell at the market. Purchased by local food transporters for refrigeration, street vendors also buy the blocks to crack or crumble with a sharp pick large chips of the ice, to produce juices sold in small plastic bags with drinking straws. Time is of an essence as the ice starts to melt in the hot early afternoon sun, and the selling becomes frantic. More grass blankets are applied to prevent the ice from melting. Ice transforms to water, and the cycle starts again.


The Synthetic:

In the refrigeration cycle, there are five basic components: fluid refrigerant; a compressor, which controls the flow of refrigerant; the condenser coils (on the outside of the fridge); the evaporator coils (on the inside of the fridge); and something called an expansion device. All are needed to make ice. The compressor constricts the refrigerant vapour, raising its pressure and pushing it into the coils on the outside of the refrigerator. When the hot gas in the coils meets the cooler air temperature of the room, it becomes a liquid. Now in liquid form at high pressure, the refrigerant cools down as it flows into the coils inside the freezer. The refrigerant absorbs the heat inside the fridge, cooling down the air and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Finally, the refrigerant evaporates to gas, then flows back to the compressor, and the cycle starts again.



As carbon dioxide is released, the air temperature rises as the oxygen that would create water vapour, and then snow, decreases. Consequently, the glacial snow line recedes on Chimborazo by 10 metres each year. The last ice miner’s subsistence is an ever ascending, losing battle.


Milika Muritu is the co-founder and director of Cell Project Space. She wrote this essay live at the ICA Studio on 24th July at 2pm GMT, as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at the ICA 20th - 26th July 2015.

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