What Does Pearl Jam’s New Album Title ‘Gigaton’ Mean?
In what’s become a time-honored fashion, Pearl Jam teased the release of what will be their 11th studio album, raising more questions than answers in the process.
The follow-up to 2013’s Lightning Bolt once again returns to a single-word title, Gigaton. By the time it’s released on March 27, we’ll know much more than we do now. However, based on the image that appears on the album cover, it seems quite possible we're dealing with some kind of planet-scale concept.
The leading image is a picture taken by nature photographer Paul Nicklen, depicting the melting of a glacier in Norway in 2014. The fact that the image has been used in a number of ways to highlight climate change issues since he created it hints at the Earth-shattering message we can expect from the new Pearl Jam music.
A gigaton is a measurement of mass, equal to one billion tons. While we’ve become used to hearing about nuclear weapon explosions being expressed in megatons, a gigaton has three more zeros – 1,000,000,000 tons. In terms of water, a gigaton is around the amount found in 400,000 Olympic swimming pools. Current estimates suggest that Antarctica is losing between 92 and 159 gigatons of ice per year.
While the melting ice caps are a strong visual element, there’s also the new Pearl Jam logo in blood red. It could represent a reading from a heartbeat monitor, but it could also represent the output from a seismic monitor; earthquakes are also measured in gigatons. For example, the famous 1906 quake in San Francisco released around one gigaton of energy, while the Indian Ocean quake of 2004 released 32 gigatons. (By comparison, the largest-ever nuclear weapon created “just” 32 megatons of energy.) Ice is also capable of causing earthquakes of a different kind, known as a cryoseism, and usually less powerful than tectonic movement.
Maybe there's a comparison being made between the effects of earthquakes and the effects of rising sea levels on our environment. Maybe the blood-red color and the regularity of the pattern suggests a comparison between the regularity of a heartbeat and the regularity of another gigaton of water leaving the polar regions. Maybe there's a comparison between how the tick-tock effect of climate change is continuing as our hearts beat and as we fail to do enough about the issue –– which regular event will end first, the beating of human hearts or the melting of another gigaton of ice?
Separate from the melting ice, there’s also another aspect of global warming that’s usually expressed in gigatons, and that’s the human output of carbon dioxide, which is the main contributor to the warming of the atmosphere and therefore the destruction of the ice. It’s estimated that we release 32 gigatons of CO2 into the skies every year, and that we’ve released around 1,500 gigatons since 1850. Based on estimates of how much permanent damage has been done, a “safe release” limit suggested we could get away with the continued emissions for 13 more years – but that was in 2012.
The artwork also includes three white shapes which could represent a number of ideas. Perhaps a heart, perhaps a broken heart, perhaps even peace. The concept of one of those shapes being a sort of ice flame might merge the concepts of ice and heat into one idea. The suggestion that global warming could eventually lead to a new ice age has been debunked, but it’s still an artistic concept – the likely consequence of the worst onset of climate chaos would be the end of humanity, the fire going out, the cold dead heart. (Interestingly, the “flame” was used on the interactive map from the Gigaton release tease splits in half on rollover, which could also carry some meaning.)
Looking closely at one part of the ice photo, a single bird can be seen flying away from one of the waterfalls. Since the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible, the concept of the bird representing a new future has been well used. Is Pearl Jam’s bird perhaps an expression of hope – that something will survive the oncoming disaster… even if it’s not us?
Of course, the band may never fully explain the details, and they may mean less (or more) than the current speculation. But Pearl Jam clearly have something to say, as they have in the past, and that leaves speculation that Gigaton could be a concept album containing a message about climate change. Is it going to be a message of doom and gloom, and outburst of anger, or even sadness? Could it even be a warning alongside an expression of hope? There is still a little time left… and time will tell.