Gambling with Floods?

With the very tangible threat of climate change, extreme events – such as floods – are becoming a more common feature of English weather and landscapes. Scientists and decision-makers work daily with computer-generated forecasts, based on which they warn an ever-growing population at risk against potential future floods. The last decades have seen unprecedented progress and we can now predict floods days, weeks and sometimes months in advance. But these forecasts are still not perfect, partly due to nature’s chaotic behaviour. How can we work with supercomputers to predict floods in nature’s noisy chaos? This is the question explored by the immersive SciArt installation Gambling with Floods?, exhibited from 1 to 15 November 2019 at The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL).

"Gambling with Floods?" exhibition flyer
Gambling with Floods? exhibition flyer

“Will there be a flood in Reading this winter? Enter the forecasting machine to make your own forecast”

Lured by these words at the entrance of the installation, you push open a curtain to discover a surprising set up made of a central piece – a jackpot or fruit machine – and side panels full of screens. You pull the fruit machine lever, activating spinning reels where the usual fruits have been replaced with water drops. While the machine is running, the surrounding screens light up and sounds start filling up the room. The screens show landscapes from around Reading, displaying various weather scenes, overlaid with numbers falling like rain. The sounds you hear are weather proverbs spoken in different languages. After a while, the machine slows down and stops spinning, showing a final combination of water drops. The side screens and sounds have also come to a stop, and a small piece of paper is printed out for you to take home. On it, the flood forecast you have just produced in the form of a haiku. Can you trust it?

A metaphorical forecasting machine: linking science & art

To design this installation, I had to distance myself from a science I had become so familiar with throughout the 4 years of my PhD. I wanted to create an installation which submerges the visitor with lots of elements (sounds, images and spinning reels) to recreate an atmosphere metaphorical of the forecasting process for them to experience. To create this metaphor, the installation makes several unconventional, and perhaps provoking, parallels between the science of flood forecasting and concepts the audience would be more familiar with.

  • This installation was based on an actual river flow forecast from EFAS and GloFAS (the European and Global Flood Awareness Systems) run on supercomputers, which very often make us think about order. In this installation, the forecast is run on a fruit machine, which symbolises chaos and randomness (in fact central to the science of forecasting – you can read more about this on a previous post).
  • This installation also makes parallels between modern science and weather proverbs. True weather proverbs are traditional and ancient yet sophisticated in that they reveal a great deal of natural understanding. Much like land drainage tiles – underground system of pipes used by farmers to prevent field waterlogging and flood damage (discussed in previous posts on The MERL blog: What lies beneath? and A land down under).

Overall, the installation reveals a science which is not so certain after all and tries to explain why that is. You can read about the SciArtistic concepts of this installation in more details on the exhibition brochure.

More than a tool to communicate science to society

I am a scientist with a lifelong love of art and started merging science and art to communicate my PhD topic to a wider audience. In my last PhD year, I created this art installation which became a chapter of my PhD thesis on “The Art of Streamflow Forecasting over Europe”. This installation aims to communicate complex scientific topics (as discussed above), whilst leaving many elements abstract and providing additional information for the more curious visitors (via the exhibition brochure and the “meet the artist” event at The MERL).

But I wanted this installation to be more than a communication tool. By provoking the visitors, through the exhibition’s name “Gambling with Floods?” and the contrasts created, I wanted to deconstruct pre-acquired ideas, creating a moment of confusion hopefully followed by a self-gained new perspective on the topic at heart. By being linked to a physical space in time, this exhibition also created a space for scientists and a wider public – The MERL visitors – to get one step closer to one another, bridging part of the existing gap between these two worlds. I believe that flood forecasting cannot (and should not) be tackled by scientists and decision-makers alone. SciArt can help open ongoing scientific discussions to a larger audience. After all, aren’t we all in some way “experts” in matters which affect us directly, like floods?

Although this exhibition was built around a flood forecast for Reading for the winter 2019/2020, it can be adapted for any other location in the world. I hope to be able to move this installation around the world in the future, to engage with audiences from different countries, where this topic is equally relevant!

"Gambling with Floods?" exhibition with Stuart Mitchell
Stuart Mitchell and Louise Arnal in the Gambling with Floods? exhibition space at The MERL

I would like to acknowledge the valuable help of Stuart Mitchell with the technical installation. I would also like to thank my family, friends, colleagues, PhD supervisors (Hannah Cloke & Liz Stephens), artists and scientists for their guidance and support during this journey. The two beautiful highlight videos were created by Jackson Films. This exhibition received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 IMPREX project (641811) and the University of Reading Vice-Chancellor endowment funding for events, and support from The MERL (with special thanks to Ollie Douglas), ECMWF and the HEPEX community.

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