The ephemeral nature of Granite Plateau Creek on the Mawson Plateau, means the creek is usually a series of waterholes.
Staircase Falls in Yosemite National Park only flows after heavy rainfall or snowmelt.
A lake formed at Badwater within Death Valley National Park during the unusually wet winter and spring of 2005.

Ephemerality (from the Greek word ἐφήμερος, meaning 'lasting only one day'[1]) is the concept of things being transitory, existing only briefly. Typically the term ephemeral is used to describe objects found in nature, although it can describe a wide range of things, including human artifacts intentionally made to last for only a temporary period in order to increase their perceived aesthetic value. With respect to unique performances, for example, it has been noted that "[e]phemerality is a quality caused by the ebb and flow of the crowd's concentration on the performance and a reflection of the nostalgic character of specific performances".[2] Because different people may value the passage of time differently, "the concept of ephemerality is a relative one".[3]

Natural examples

Geographical features

An ephemeral stream is that which only exists following precipitation.[4] They are not the same as intermittent or seasonal waterbodies, which exist for longer periods, but not all year round.[citation needed] Ephemeral streams can be difficult to "conceptually defin[e]"; those that are discontinuous, due to altering between aggradation or degradation, have the appearance of continual change.[5][6] Ephemeral waterbodies experience formative change upon the end of a hydroperiod.[7] "Due to lack of continuous hydrology data, the designation of sites as ephemeral or intermittent is necessarily tenuous".[4]

Small wetlands are often ephemeral and ephemeral ecosystems are often aquatic; ephemeral wetlands/ponds are a varied and global occurance.[8][7] In tropical biomes, amphibians often reside in ephemeral habitats during dry seasons; opportunistic species utilise similar and ephemeral habitats for food, sleep or mating.[9] Environments akin to ephemeral ponds can be very significant sites of reproduction for amphibians; many other organism make use of ephemeral ponds.[10]

Ephemeral habitat patches have repeatedly been assessed as deterimental to metapopulation persistence, although metapopulations aren't always negatively affected by ephemeral landscapes.[11] Ephemeral streams have, relative to their perennial counterparts, lower species richness; the streams are "potentially demanding" for inhabitants, although some species do reside.[12] The ephemerality of a river network is a particularly significant element in the hydrological transmission of waterborne diseases, via a direct and indirect pressence in the transmission cycle – the nature of the disease and area covered are important factors as well.[13]

Examples of ephemeral streams are the Luni river in Rajasthan, India, Ugab River in Southern Africa, and a number of small ephemeral watercourses that drain Talak in northern Niger. Other notable ephemeral rivers include the Todd River and Sandover River in Central Australia as well as the Son River, Batha River and the Trabancos River.

Any endorheic basin, or closed basin, that contains a playa (dry lake) at its drainage lowpoint can become an ephemeral lake. Examples include Lake Carnegie in Western Australia, Lake Cowal in New South Wales, Mystic Lake and Rogers Lake in California, and Sevier Lake in Utah. Even the driest and lowest place in North America, Death Valley (more specifically Badwater Basin), became flooded with a short-lived ephemeral lake in the spring of 2005.[14]

There are also ephemeral islands such as Banua Wuhu and Home Reef. These islands appear when volcanic activity increases their height above sea level, but disappear over several years due to wave erosion. Bassas da India, on the other hand, is a near-sea level island that appears only at low tide.

Only a small amount of southern Costa Rica's secondary forests reach maturity, indicating that they may be "generally ephemeral".[15] Deciduous forests, via the seasonal change of leaves, are subject to natural ephemeral changes.[16] Landscapes feature ephemeral changes of both natural and man-made origin.[16] Furrows, haystacks and sheaves are ephemeral aspects of a landscape.[16]

Biological processes

Plants whose life cycle is significantly less than the time of a growing season are deemed ephemeral.[17] Winter annuals, Epilobium and Senecio vulgaris are examples of ephemeral plants.[17][18] The conditions for ephemeral plants are markedly present in deserts.[18]

Animals can be ephemeral, with brine shrimp and the mayfly being examples. The placenta is considered an ephemeral organ present during gestation and pregnancy.

Ephemerality is a component of olfaction and memory, aligned with permanency in the latter.[19][20] With regards to witnessing an artwork in a museum, limited research indicates that the ephemerality of solely gazing at the artwork results in greater remembrance compared to the resulting memory from taking a photograph.[21]

Ephemeral artifacts

Objects which are ephemeral, per one perspective, are those whose compositional material experience chemical or physical changes and are thus permanently altered; this process occurs in a matter of decades.[22] Due to often outlasting their expressed purpose, these objects can be perceived as temporal and ontological oddities; ephemerality has been described as constitutionally liminal.[23][24][25] These objects, however, chiefly disappear, perserved often knowingly and thus "rescued from ephemerality".[26] Libraries, for example, "are perpetually engaged in contesting ephemerality".[27] Professor of English, Gillian Russell wrote that ephemerality "in both its material and conceptual senses can...be said to be a constitutive feature of the age of print that began in the mid-fifteenth century. It is increasingly constitutive of the emergent post-print age too".[28]

Ephemeral acquired its common meaning of short-living in the mid 19th century and has connotations of passing time, fragility, change, disappearance, transformation and the "philosophically ultimate vision of our own existence".[29][30][31] According to Christine Buci-Glucksmann, "the entire western history of the ephemeral seems to be dominated by melancholy", citing Baroque and Vanitas art as relevant examples; she notes Mujō as the Japanese concept of ephemeral and said that "More widely, there is a true culture of the ephemeral in Japan".[32] Defining ephemera, "the minor transient documents of everyday life" popularized notions of ephemerality and everyday life as intertwined. Samuel Johnson significantly contributed to the modern understanding of ephemerality.[33] Art scholar Allyson Purpura opined that "the idea of the ephemeral is inherently poetic", noting that various artists have drawn upon ephemerality to explore time and memory and, within artworks, it has been used to signify political critique, emotional introspection and spiritually.[24]

Visualisation of ephemerality in synchronous, in-person, communication between two or more parties.

In the digital realm, online interactions have been said to straddle permanency and ephemerality, there existing a "rapid cycle" of new posts; participants adopt a social norm that "the discourse will pass and be forgotten as the past".[34] Furthermore, digital media's encompassing archival process means that information of varying importance can either be affixed or ephemeral.[35] Russell surmised that digital ephemeral material conjures an ostensibly perennial fear of an "undead" past persisting indefinitely, thus haunting the present.[36] Ephemeral aspects are evident in instant messages, as they "[simulate] a fleeting moment in time" – in person interactions also feature ephemerality.[34][37] A significant amounts of living is ephemeral and the emergence of new digital media and technology develops what we deem ephemeral.[38][39] Websites such as Snapchat and Wickr make use of ephemerality, which is a technologically and socially reliant concept – relative and historically changing, as well.[37][39] The rudimentary technology of early radio led to the media broadcast being ephemeral.[40]

Due to its fragile and solid nature, Buci-Glucksmann used glass figurines as a metaphor for ephemerality.[25]

Within the context of modern media dissemination, YouTube videos, viral emails and photos have been identified as ephemeral; as have means of advertising, both physical and digital and the internet collectively.[41][42][43][a] Ephermeral media has been described as that which is brief in duration and/or circulation, adjacent to "the primary texts of contemporary entertainment culture".[45] YouTube has "become a hugely successful aggregator of ephemeral media".[44] In 2009, Ian Christie considered that a substantial amount of modern media, aligned with "rapid proliferati[on]", "may prove much more ephemeral than the flip-book".[46] By the early 20th century, film was being used to document and combat ephemeral aspects of human development, such as "girlhood"; by the late 20th century, T. C. Worsley dubbed television the "ephemeral art".[47][48]

Ephemerality has received increased attention from modern academics, in fields such as: literary studies, art history, book history, digital media studies, performance studies – "and the 'archival turn' in the humanities as a whole".[49][50] Social historians and historians of sound have contended their subject's ephemerality by utilising more material forms.[51][52]

Multiple academics, such as Clive Phillpot and William Hazlitt, have described various aspects of literature as ephemeral, including novels and definitions.[27][53][54][55][56] Hazlitt contended that such ephemerality was the result of widespread aestheticism, thus the creations were subject to being abruptly disregarded due to the cascading "gaze of fashion".[55] The ubiquity of digital media has spurred the opinion that print materal is comparatively less ephemeral.[39] Wang Tao and Rubem Fonseca evoked ephemerality via female characters.[57][58]

Performance art has been described as ephemeral in nature; with regards to historical performances, the traces: playbills, scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and material artifacts are themselves ephemeral.[41][59] Witnessing a dance that will be rendered ephemeral is resultingly commodified and of greater desire to prospecting audiences.[60][b] The documentation of other ephemeral events: protests, installations, exhibitions, are often meager – public events, of varying size, naturally generate ephemeral material.[61][62] Ephemeral elements of decorative arts include: silver, glass, ceramics and furniture.[63] Artworks of an intentionally volatile or finite status are those deemed ephemeral art, a global occurrence, often potent in installation art.[24][64][65][c] The Mapocho River embarkment had long served as a notable vessel for ephemeral art.[67] Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argued that “The ephemeral encompasses all forms of behavior – everyday activities, story-telling, ritual, dance, speech, performance of all kinds".[68]

"[Ephemerality] and disposability" have been perceived as components "of an American ethos".[69] Ephemerality has been identified as relevant to queer cultures; José Esteban Muñoz argued that queerness and ephemerality are intertwined, as the former has been expressed in methods which are prone to fade upon the "touch of those who would erase queer possibility".[70][71] Muñoz posisted that the physical proximation of dance, which coupled with the "shared rhythm", results in a unifed yet ephemeral status of those engaged.[72]

On Death, Part One, by Max Klinger which depicts life's emphermal nature.[73]

During the Baroque period, wealthy patrons would commission ephemeral creations from well-known artists of the time.[74] "[N]otions of ephemerality" were a "pivotal concept" in the Victorian era, according to, scholar of Victorian literature, Paul Fyfe; broadsides of the time, he wrote, "seemed to take ephemerality to an extreme".[75][d] Textual media then employed various bold and ornate visual and tactile methods to eschew ephemerality however by the mid-eighteenth century varied ephemeral prints were integral to "almost every literate person's daily life"–the cheap print culture of that century was was conceived as intentionally ephemeral.[30][77][78] Culturally, the late Georgian era rendered upon many critics as an "ephemeral age", definied by a precipitous regard to new materials.[55]

Ephemerality, expressed both socially and materially, was profound in modernity and has "long been identified as [a] core attribute"; it was a iconoclastic feature of then-artworks and present in those of the later Dada and Fluxus movements.[24][79] Various forms of African visual art, such as Kuba art and traditional arts, have ephemerality as a key component; ephemeral art is a cultural feature in acts of coping, cautioning, protection and self-determination.[24][80][81][64] Architecture of an ephemeral nature appears as increasingly commonplace, on account of global and capricious hyper-mobility and mass displacement.[82] Architecture scholar Anastasia Karandinou argued that the practice's modern relation to ephemerality correlated with digital media's evolution, which she says has enabled new conceptions of space and everyday thinking.[83] Of an indefinite and contentious nature, the definition of a region is ephemeral.[84]

See also


  1. ^ YouTube videos, according to film scholar Paul Grainge, is ephemeral due to "the brevity of its clips".[44]
  2. ^ Discussing ephemerality in relation to artworks, Purpura posited that it defies the commodification of art.[24]
  3. ^ Barry Le Va and Félix González-Torres created ephemeral pieces.[66]
  4. ^ Postcards, similarly, provide an example of a ubiquitous and ephemeral medium.[76]
  1. ^ Ephemeros, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  2. ^ Will Straw, Alexandra Boutros, Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture (2010), p. 148.
  3. ^ Ronald Beiner, Political Philosophy: What It Is and Why It Matters (2014), p. 10.
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  10. ^ Almeida-Gomes, Mauricio; Rocha, Carlos F. D.; Vieira, Marcus V. (2016). "Local and Landscape Factors Driving the Structure of Tropical Anuran Communities: Do Ephemeral Ponds have a Nested Pattern?". Biotropica. 48 (3): 365–372. doi:10.2307/48574984. ISSN 0006-3606.
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  • Grainge, Paul, ed. (2011). Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-84457-435-3.
  • Russell, Gillian (2020). The Ephemeral Eighteenth Century: Print, Sociability, and the Cultures of Collecting. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-48758-0.
  • Wasserman, Sarah (2020). The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-1-4529-6414-0.

Further reading