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Sky Islands: A time machine of the Andes Mountains

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Sky Islands: A time machine of the Andes Mountains is a 3D animation where science, art, and technology converge as a media to explore the visualization of one chapter of the ecological history of the Northern Andes Mountains. In the times we are living today, the anthropogenic global warming is affecting not only our human species but also the whole species and inhabitants of the planet Earth. For this reason this project seeks to envision how the past times in the Andes mountains took more than three million years to create an impressive diversification of ecosystems and species, but the transformation made by humans in the Anthropocene or in just the last hundred years, has a magnitud able to extinct unique species that have been evolving and diversifying for the last three million years in the northern Andes of South America. This visualization not only open a door to travel in a time machine, from the Latest Pliocene to the Anthropocene as a first step toward opening minds and creating awareness of the importance of evolution in the South American Andes ecosystems and its biodiversity, but also to implant a concern and post a question about how we can change the future and our relation with the Andes in a way to mend the disaster we have been creating.


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Billions of years of evolution on Earth have been drastically devastated in just one hundred years after industrialization. It is no secret to anyone that currently the alarms of climate change or global warming caused by the human species are affecting life on earth and it is already a fact that the human footprint is part of the ice records of the Antarctic. Probably even that it is also in many lakes, lagoons, and rivers that act as deposits of history on earth. Sky Islands: a time machine of the Andes Mountains represents the history of the evolution of the Andes in the last 3 million years and its objective is to recover the Earth’s memory and make it known. Maybe those who know it, find the reason and feel the need to protect and start transforming the history of the future of the Andean paramos and forests.

Sky Islands: a time machine of the Andes Mountains is also an exploration of how to display scientific information using digital art, 3D animation, and data visualization as contemporary tools to imagine ecosystems in the past. The challenge is to find a pathway of telling the dynamic history of the páramos of the Northern Andes Mountains of South America in a visual and revealing form. This project is a science, art, and technology convergence, integrated into an innovative education model that explores theories from different disciplines with the aim to engage kids, families, researchers, students, politicians and general audiences. The purpose of this visualization is to make them understand the importance of these natural evolution process that took millions of years in the Northern Andes, for our current understanding. In more detail, this project will envision how the shifting elevational distributions of the Andean ecosystems was caused by cold and warm conditions driven by long term climate cycles, called the Milankovitch cycles (Muller et al. 1997) and how the diversification of species increased exponentially as a result of these cycles, but emphatically how these ecosystems which process of evolution spent million of years is being deteriorated in just hundred years of devastating human activity.

For this travel in a time machine, I am supported by a group of researchers of University of Amsterdam (UvA) and collaborators that has been studying for more than five decades long term climate dynamics and the evolution of the ecosystems in South America Northern Andes. Their studies have been focused on understanding vegetation dynamics in present and past times (see studies from A. Cleef, T. van der Hammen, H. Hooghiemstra and co-workers). After 50 years of studying pollen fossil, aging materials, sedimentation rates, current species of plants, different type of ecosystems and its geographical distribution (among others), they found unique lakes which long fossil pollen and sediment records cover the last 3 million years history of the Andes Mountains. (Hooghiemstra 1984; Bogotá et al., 2011; Groot et al., 2011; Torres et al., 2005, 2013). They also found a pathway to make spatial reconstructions through time about the top highest Andean ecosystems: the páramos (Van der Hammen,1974, Flantua et al., 2014, Flantua & Hooghiemstra, 2017).

Imagine the páramos as highly species rich ecosystems which are currently restricted to mountain tops in the northern Andes where they resemble an archipelago of isolated islands. However, in the past they dominated large surface areas throughout the Northern Andes. Driven by large scale cycles of climate change, the páramo ‘sky islands’ shifted altitudinally along the mountain slopes, influenced also by the topography that causes a complex spatial mosaic of fragmented (small) and connected (large) páramo areas. During cold conditions, the low elevational position of the páramos cause the many isolated Páramo islands to fuse, while during warmer conditions the páramos formed isolated archipelagos, as a long connectivity-disconnectivity dance or a mechanism described as the ‘flickering connectivity system’ (Flantua & Hooghiemstra, 2017).

Part one: Andes mountains

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I was born in Bogotá Plain in Colombia. My childhood, adolescence, and part of my adult experience were 2600 meters closer to the starts in Bogotá City. As nature lover and traveler, biologist and amateur photographer, I experienced Paramos and Andean forests from the northern Peru to the northern Venezuela, crossing the three branches of Colombian Andes cordilleras. In this part, I want to make a geographical and ecological context of Northern Andes Mountains. This chapter will describe where the Andes mountains are located, how they look, what ecosystems are possible to find there, and finally what was the process of transformation and evolution of its ecosystems from the last three million of years (Last-Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene and the Anthropocene geological periods). The description will contain an explanation of glacial and interglacials cycles, and how they represent the flickering connectivity system, fragmentation, connectivity and speciation of the sky islands (Páramos).

I will use part of the essay I wrote last year:
From Pleistocene to Anthropocene: A story happening to the face of a planet called the Earth

Part two: Re-connecting with Planet Earth: our Home

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One of the reasons why decide to become an artist as a biologist is a great concern about the ecological crises we are testifying and how new media arts are a good tool to communicate what science is researching and their results. I totally believe we can inter-cross these disciplines to create a lost awareness that reminds us why to protect and respect the natural environments. That’s why in this part, I want to talk about what is climate change, global warming, solastalgia, biophilia and Anthropocene, and finally how the recent emergence of these concepts give us awareness about how we as human species are acting against our home planet and then ourselves. I will use part of the essay I wrote last year: 2. Biophilia, Anthropocene, and Solastalgia: the last global concepts to give us a key about why we should search a Re-connection with Planet Earth: our Home

Part three: Earth, Arts, Science and Technology Context

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The experience as biologist exploring visual arts has given me the opportunity to listen to my own voice and being inspired mainly by the Art of the Earth. As well as following environmental artists from 1970’s; science and art collaborations; display of data visualizations and recently artists in the Anthropocene. In this part, I want to sum up these concepts and focus on artists who inspired me the last years. I finally will describe how the process of making Sky Islands: a time machine of the Andes Mountain took shape.

Part four: Animation process, editing, and installation

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After exploring and playing with microscopes, analog and digital cameras, and beamers as media objects, I started recently to learn 3D animation software as Cinema 4D, Vue and After Effects. In this part, I will describe how I found a way to use them to make possible this 3D animation and how the technical process and final result took shape.

The complete process includes pre-production, production, and post-production following the next steps. A. Pre-Production: Storytelling and timeline The storytelling of Sky Islands: a time machine of the Andes Mountains is based on publications and meetings with UvA’s researchers to understand and transform their results into a storytelling which follows a timeline of the last 3 million years (latest Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene geological periods). This will be composed of three parts:

1. There is a macro-scene from outside the Earth showing the glacial (the coldest periods) and interglacial (the warmest periods) Milankovitch cycles, called ‘eccentricity’, ‘obliquity and ‘precession’. These cycles caused a cyclical variation in the solar radiation reaching the Earth, which strongly influenced climatic patterns around the globe. The páramos have been shown to be very sensitive to these cycles.

2. There are two close-ups in the Andes mountains:

a. A general scene from the Northern Andes to visualize and understand the main vegetation dynamics. This mechanism is called Flickering Connectivity System and shows how the Andean ecosystems (páramos and Andean forests) shifted up and down along the slopes. Also, the páramos expanded and contracted to form archipelagos of isolated islands, also called ‘sky islands’. This camera point of view is mirroring the macro-scene from outside the Earth but shows the same process in more detail within the mountains. There will be a clock showing the time-machine, and extra information about the altitude of the main three Andean ecosystems and a legend that explains the used colors (temperature and ecosystems).

b. A close-up at the central mountain chain in Colombia to show changes in more detailed perspective on how the páramo archipelago changed over the last 2.6 million years, the Quaternary. For this part, we chose six scenarios as the most representative snapshots of the whole storyline. These scenarios will be repeated in similar conditions of glacial and interglacial periods but in different moments of time during the last 2.6 million years.

• Scenario 1: Pliocene. The páramo biome had evolved during the previous millions of years when climate had only fluctuated little; the páramo was poor in species • Scenario 2: Pleistocene. Interglacial (Warm conditions). 1 million years before present, Alnus tree entered into the northern Andes. • Scenario 3: Pleistocene. Glacial (cool stadial conditions). 480.000 years before present. The tree Quercus enters into the Northern Andes. • Scenario 4: Pleistocene. Glacial (mild interstadial conditions). X, Y, Z years • Scenario 5: Holocene. Interglacial (warm conditions). X, Y, Z y years • Scenario 6: Interglacial in the Anthropocene, deforestation, actual conditions, today.

B. Production: Illustration Design + Revision and Animation + Revisions I am making a 3D animation using Cinema 4D and VUE Xtreme. For final renders, I am using After Effects and Adobe Premier. To generate the real landscapes of Andes mountains in Cinema 4D and Vue Xtreme, I am using high-resolution Digital Elevation Models (DEM at 30m and 90 m of resolution). To design plants, I will use VUE-Plant Factory. General and technical steps are modeling, texturing, lighting, animating, camera animating and rendering.

C. Post-Production: Rendering + Revisions and Final editing + Revisions This final step is dedicated to make the final renders and edit the composition, effects and color correction.

D. Installation The final outcome will depend on facilities for materials, but I am currently preparing the following three options:

1. Immersive 360 degrees’ video installation, the half screen will display the cycles outside of the Earth and the second half, the process happening in the mountains as a mirroring or a reflection of the Sun-Earth cycles.


2. A video installation using two confronted screens, but in this case, one screen will display the cycles outside of the Earth and the second screen the process happening in the mountains as a mirroring or a reflection of the Sun-Earth cycles.

3. A five minutes editing for film and screening. Additionally, the visualization will be integrated with additional explanations provided by researcher’s interviews. The results will be available in an open access domain, e.g. on the IBED server, and will also be part of the Installation.


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Sky Islands: A time machine of the Andes Mountains is not more than the result of a wish I dreamt many years ago when I was part of a group of researchers and traveler of the time machine. Watching the hidden worlds living under the soils, under the water and inside of any living and apparently no living organisms with microscopes but also traveling for new research adventures in the forest and mountains with my camera as a witness. Since then, I saw beyond imaginable, invisible worlds that came up visible to my eyes as the augmented realities. Micro-worlds that revealed macro-worlds from other times.


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