"The Icebergs" by Frederik Edwin Church, oil on canvas, 1861

Iceberg as Signifier of the Environmental Epoch

by Christina Ondrus


The image of the iceberg has been historically striking to the Western world on a variety of levels. In the late 19th century it symbolized the vastly unknown, uninhabitable reaches of this world and their sublimity. It was a pristine marvel, invoking an optimistic, shimmering new age. It harkened a craze of expeditions that delved into the far reaches of the globe, including the North Pole, and suggested the exoticism of later archeological digs at the Great Pyramids and other sites of antiquity. These were all areas of exploration just beginning to be investigated, and seemed to portend the great western ambition for conquest that would subsume the next century. Bolstered by the burgeoning sense of Manifest Destiny, the Industrial Revolution and Scientific Age strove to reach out and rightfully claim the unknown regions of the world as its own.

As Jorn Munker’s article “Iceberg: Utopia, Dystopia, and Myopia in the Late 19th Century” investigates, the optimism found in Frederik E. Church’s 1861 painting, “The Icebergs” soon dissipated into the social anxieties of the new structures of a capitalistic society:

“(The iceberg)…became the tertium comparationis of worldly demise and disappearance. A floating iceberg’s destiny that is to vanish gradually into the spacial infinity of nature, which itself is being altered by intrinsic dynamics, pictorially expressed the increasing concern (of) for the whole- sale rearrangement of the U.S. American capitalist society.”


It is interesting to learn, then that Chruch’s inspiration for the painting actually came out of the highly publicized disappearance of the Franklin Expedition which was searching for the Northwest Passage in 1847. Knowing this, a foreshadowing of the negation of ideals of the industrial age seems to be present far earlier. The lost expedition was in search of the fabled route that would make global trade routes faster and more direct. This sheds a more ominous light on his shimmering pictorial, but lends a segue into a contemporary read.

Another major representation of the iceberg in Western consciousness is as the assassin in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. In this historical event, progress, in the form of the grandest engineered ship of the time collides with the hidden force of nature, and is consequently subsumed. This reaffirms the tragic beauty of Church’s pictorial. The sinking of the Titanic is loaded with imagery of human ideals ultimately being caught off guard with the remorselessness of nature. It’s arguable from this event onward that icebergs were no longer seen as benign beauties.


So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the image of the iceberg has emerged again at the start of the 21st century. It is and emblem of global warming and catastrophic natural disasters. Glossy magazines, environmental awareness campaigns, and documentary films have all latched on to the gorgeous sheen of white and blue icebergs melting into increasingly warmer seas. The beauty of the iceberg has captured the West’s imagination again. Current images are presented in shimmering digital clarity—capturing what seem to be the last pristine moments of nature, gracefully gliding into human-wrought oblivion. That is perhaps what is most interesting about the re-presentation of the iceberg in contemporary images. It is wholly seductive and inviting, despite it’s uninhabitable nature. It’s as if there is solemnity and awe at bearing witness to the idea that humans have manipulated nature into ultimate submission. The unknown (iceberg), once glistening with insurmountable optimism has been terminally dominated by human actions. The irony being, it is wholly at our human expense. So in a way, the iceberg comes full circle.


The future as imagined, is actually disappearing. The vast unknown is quickly mutating into a foreseeable pandemic of global climate shift. The scale of this is so immense that it could rearrange major areas of civilization, and completely impact its very foundations in less than one hundred years. The once looming, great extent that the artic represented is rapidly receding. The mark of the human imprint cannot be denied. Huge melting glacial sheets are revealing rocky terrain that has lay hidden for centuries. Until recent times it was forever humanly conceivable that the poles would continue onward in frozen reign. But the last thirty years has shockingly revealed the malleability of this vision, and that of reality itself. What destination has progress really imagined?


The great 20th century has left a wake of environmental disaster. The blind idealism and conquest spurred on by Manifest Destiny has brought about a different reality than was projected in the late 19th century. The hope of the industrial age has in fact created vast disparities in economics, politics, and now the natural world. Not only have humans not been liberated from daily labor, they also have been duped into contributing to their own demise by stripping the earth of sustenance. The future that is coming to pass is one that has become apparent as preordained in accordance to the processes of the last century. That is to say that the detritus of the industrial age reveals the disregard for the free and effortless gifts of the natural earth. This very disregard and sense of entitlement to the earth as “resource” are directly contributing to its deterioration.


It’s as if the 21st century itself is onboard the Titanic—dressed to the nines in digital finery, as we slowly gouge toward a mass of self-ignorant catastrophe. The iceberg looms again. Now it is a symbol of a world in decline, and it may also be a harbinger of a lost world--the very one which has been know to us.