Climate artist and glacial scientist Jill Pelto draws her own conclusions about climate storytelling.
“I play around with types of data and visuals….it’s just kind of using something real but changing it so that people see [climate change] in a new light and kind of potentially stop to pay attention to it in a different way.”
Climate change is all about the numbers. From temperature estimates to the parts per million measurements of carbon in the atmosphere, climate scientists rely on a complex web of data to interpret, understand, and predict a wide range of impacts on our warming world. But for climate artist and glacial scientist Jill Pelto, the numbers are only the beginning. Having grown up conducting fieldwork in one of the most heavily glaciated areas in the United States to creating a career for herself as an artist, Pelto has combined her two greatest passions into a new terrain for climate communication.
Having earned bachelor's degrees in both Studio Art and Earth Science from the University of Maine, Pelto has crafted a niche in using her art skills to help viewers interpret the world around them. Her work spans art galleries, nonprofits, nature publications, and science curricula across North America. Driven by her mission, she creates relevant and engaging ways for her audience to connect with scientific concepts.
As a science communicator, Pelto acts as a translator between scientists and the public, breaking highly complex scientific discoveries down into language that everyone can understand. By turning data and diagrams with visually engaging designs, she’s creating a new forum for understanding and interpretation.
Storytelling is such an important and sometimes underutilized tool for people within science. How would you describe the importance of using visuals in science communication?
JP: "Obviously everyone learns and absorbs information in really different ways. But of course, visuals are the one of the most powerful ways to learn about stuff. I think having it be specifically art is different because art has a different kind of capacity for connecting with people. You can take a lot of liberties, of course, with how you choose to illustrate something. It doesn't have to be a diagram or something kind of formally scientific, which—well, those have value but don't reach the same types of audiences in terms of further communication of the stories. And so, I think artists have such a cool part to play in making those connections between what the scientists themselves are doing and communicating about and making sure that other people can hear those stories, but in ways that translate better to them."
Another aspect that's super important about telling climate stories is the audience. So as the artist, how do you create artwork that appeals to or educates audiences that have varying levels of knowledge, maybe about climate change, and sometimes varying opinions?
JP: "It's really interesting to me and I have thought a lot about what types of topics I'm choosing and like how I'm choosing to depict them. I think one thing is having a broad range of topics that I make art about. Because I've done a lot of research and fieldwork around glacial environments, I've made a lot of art about that. But for a lot of people, that's not a landscape that they know. It isn't as meaningful to them, even if they know it's important. So then I'd want to be making work about other types of landscapes or other types of changes that people might be experiencing."
JP: “The other element that I kind of thought more about, not the beginning of my science art career, but now is 'what is the emotional story I'm trying to put in?' because I think there's room for every kind of story. I do think that the stories of climate anxiety and overwhelm are kind of oversaturated, there's so much of that. And while that's important, there's not the same amount of stories about positive changes or hope or action. I guess most of my work is not just about showing [that] there's hope that this can be stopped. [...] And so that's the other thing [I’m] trying to be cognizant of is, what are people going to be receptive to? Are they going to want the kind of stories that are going to be helpful for them and...growing and engaging with them? That being said, I know one art piece on its own...can only convey so much and...Certain people are going to respond to it more, of course, which is just how it is. And so it's more of having that broad range amongst my whole portfolio. I guess that's important to me."
In addition to her undergraduate experience spanning both art and science, Pelto went on to specialize in climate science, completing a master’s degree in Geological Science at her alma mater, where her thesis focused on the sensitivity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet to changes in the Earth-Climate system. She amassed countless hours of fieldwork in ecosystems around the world, from Canada and New Zealand to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. Her most important fieldwork, however, is a bit closer to home.
Pelto’s fascination with the natural environment began at an early age. Her father, Mauri Pelto, is a professor and glaciologist at Nichols College in Massachusetts, best known for running one of the most prominent longitudinal glacier studies to date.1 Since she was in high school, she’s accompanied her dad during his annual field season, monitoring glacial change in the North Cascades of Washington State as a part of his North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.
"It's really fortunate that I've gotten to do such a long-term science fieldwork based project. So a lot of science seems to be kind of funded in short timeframes, like a grant that funds a project for a few years. And so you have to go outside of that system to have long term projects. And that's what my dad has done with the North Cascade Climate Glacier Project. It's more self-funded, and sometimes we have some support from a small grant or something. This is his 40th year of the project, and he's led it every year since he created it. And so, this was my 15th year, helping out for the whole time and I now co-direct the project with him. I just feel like growing up getting the opportunity to do something like that is just so incredible. I have gotten to fall in love with this landscape, and see it changing."
With many climate studies, time is the name of the game. As Pelto says, the terrain differs from year to year depending on a variety of weather-related factors. But the beauty and complexity of running a study over several decades is the ability to more thoroughly observe the patterns of the glaciers, which have likely existed since the last ice age some 14,000 years ago.2 But since Pelto’s father’s inaugural field season in 1984, the only constant seems to be change.
JP: "Because it's so much a part of my life and because I've spent so many months of my life up in these same places year after year and seeing so much change, that does have that big emotional toll. This summer was a really, really bad year. And so there's years that it kind of will hit home and be hurt or emotional whereas [some] years it's okay, the snow in the mountains is a little bit better. The glaciers didn't change too much in this one year, so you can kind of forget or pretend [...]
They're retreating, but it's slow, and then you get reminded of how fast it is, and that it just keeps speeding up. Maybe two or three glaciers that we work on, we decided this year are just officially not glaciers anymore. It's just ice. It's just sitting there, it's not flowing. It's just like a big patch of ice is going to melt away. And so that was really intense to see and the major changes were really intense to see this year."
Declaring a dead glacier a victim of climate change is, well, easier said than done. There’s a multitude of factors at play, human-induced warming temperatures being just one of many potential causes. For this reason, it’s even more critical that Mauri Pelto and co. have lived up to his promise to document changes in the range for half a century3—garnering a more thorough understanding of the area than ever before.
What sort of impact does the Glacier Project hope to have by documenting these glaciers, year in and year out?
JP: "There's a bunch of different elements to it. One is just to document the changes every single year. There's not a lot of datasets like that out there that have exact changes to landscapes and what it looks like, year to year. There's some times where I've noticed like, oh, wow, like that's crazy—there’s a new lake under this glacier! That's sad, but then there's the part of you that's like, Oh, that's so fascinating to be able to have the numbers and the data for the future because some of these, a lot of these glaciers, obviously, will completely be gone. Some of them will persist, but way smaller than they are today. And people wouldn't know how fast these changes are, or what exactly happened. And so we'll have a lot of that information that you could never get again. And so that's one thing is recording, preserving that story and that history."
JP: "Understanding the rate of change for the landscape and ecosystem and kind of all the repercussions of that whether it's plants or animals and the water. The water is a really big part of it and where there's a lot of concern because a lot of areas in the world rely on either glaciers or snow, like high amounts of snowpack and the mountains to supply the drinking water water for irrigation for the reservoirs, everything for the fish that we eat, for the hydropower. There's all these very present day implications. So, if we can better understand how fast the glaciers are retreating, that's just one thing. It's like, okay, well, here's what's been happening to the stream, like the discharge, how much lower it is and the temperature of the stream, how much warmer it is. These things that we need to know now and to kind of predict, Okay, well, just the next, you know, 10 or 50 or 100 years kind of look like."
The NCGCP is retrospective—that is, assessing how the glaciers have changed over time. While glaciers have always periodically advanced and retreated, and years of heavy snow can help to replenish some of the worst-off sections, the Pelto's are witnessing a more significant melt-off than ever before in their data4. But having access to such a thorough dataset may allow scientists critical understanding of the ways in which glacial loss may impact the world around them.
As both the Co-Director and Art Director of NCGCP, Pelto is working to integrate scientific data collection and subsequent communication strategies. She’s taken on a role that’s still somewhat uncommon in many scientific research groups, and is thinking out of the box to redefine the reach of scientific discovery and climate communication.
JP: "With the Glacier Project, it's neat, because I'm now an artist and science communicator. I'm more able to be active as a scientist when I'm doing that field work. And so most days, I fully join in all of the science fieldwork and help with all of that. I help plan the whole field season, all the logistics, and manage all of our team, all of that with my dad. So for the field work, our typical day, we will be in the backcountry camping, kind of relatively close to the glacier, on bedrock. We hike up to the glacier, first thing after breakfast and spend the whole day taking the different measurements that we do, which are things like mapping out where the terminus is, as opposed to the past. We'll do a lot of snow depth, which you can do up until it gets too deep."
JP: "We have this big metal probe [...] so you can really rummage under the snow to get to the hard surface from last year's snow, so you know how much is left, like this preserved blanket of snow on the glacier. And then just changes, measuring changes like that. The slope of the glacier, is it steeper than it was in the past? Has it thinned down? We work on about eight different glaciers, and that's across five different field sites [...] owe don't really have any days off unless there's bad weather, we just kind of go one to the next. They're all different, parts of the range to really compare different size glaciers and different types of glaciers. Some are on the big volcanoes in the state, some of them are just little glaciers and basins that really get fed by avalanches on the cliffs above them."
Fine art and scientific fieldwork aren't activities that always go hand in hand. What does a day of fieldwork look like for you as an artist and what kinds of materials are you bringing out into the field?
JP: "The art portion for me is usually either doing a painting in the evening back at camp. I'll occasionally bring some stuff with me on the glacier. Now that I know the schedule so well, it's like okay, I don't need to help with these measurements, so I'm going to hang out over here and paint the glacier while they do them and I'll be back up with them. And then I'll usually take one day each season where I'm just kind of doing art all day and going to a few different areas to prioritize that. But besides that, it's just kind of carving it in, and a part of that is because I love doing field art, but I'm definitely most of my professional art is not art I'm making the field it's more back in the studio. And so that stuff's fun and it's helping my skills and it's informing me and it's really important to me. But usually it's more of getting a lot of inspiration with my art and photos and the science for future work in my studio."
"I [also] bring in other artists, and their roles can be really different. We work together to make it the experience they want. Some artists don't really do any of the field work. They are mainly just creating art. They're doing their own thing during the day. And then some of them do most of the field work and kind of anywhere in between, based on their...interest, how much they want to make in the field."
While it is more common to find nature artists specializing in traditional mediums, like Pelto, the project welcomes artists who are continuing to find new visual ways to communicate scientific observations. Although the project doesn’t always have the funding to reimburse their art team, Pelto welcomes any artist who’s interested in backpacking into the field to capture their work.
JP: "I have watercolors and colored pencils when I'm out there, because they're easy to bring in. And I definitely feel like the most like environmental artists I know are painters but I would love to have a wider variety of people come. A few of them are watercolor or acrylic painters like me and bring paint stuff with them. But we have had a sculptor [in the past] and then this year we had a scientific illustrator and so she did some really cool work—she did do watercolor, but a lot of it was pencil and pen work too, bridging the gap between fine art and more of like a diagram in a neat way. And then, a couple years ago we had someone who was a cake artist, basically like a sculptor. But she made these cool like edible creations, the idea [being to] bring people together around food. She literally made this series of desserts based on all the fieldwork we did—like this huge cake with layers of ice and snow and all this cool stuff."
Despite the damning nature of many climate stories, Pelto believes that it’s important they’re told. She tends to stick to the facts and figures, but searches for pieces of climate positivity to incorporate into her work. Pelto also actively works to combat the heaviness of her own work by remaining hopeful about climate action that’s being taken around the world. From local Climate Action Plans to widespread activist movements, she continues to be inspired by her community.
So many climate stories [and yet] a lot of them are really bad news. How do you remain hopeful when you go out into the field and see that you’re losing more glaciers?
JP: "There were a lot of really emotional moments and I feel like that's why I think it's awesome that I can make art about science, because I think sometimes people view science as not emotional, which is really untrue. That's just not going to come across in something like a scientific paper. So I can make it my role to tell those stories in a more emotional way."
JP: "I’m trying to put in elements that bring something more positive... Sometimes it's been literally showing data about something like renewable energy use in different places in the world. And so, just showing people action. I end up kind of telling just a little piece of those stories. I feel like there's certain things that I try to pay attention to because those good stories can sometimes not get as much attention."
From rugged mountaineering trips to creating fine art inspired by her explorations, Pelto’s greatest achievement might just be the pinnacle of a career dedicated to both scientific observation and communication. In July of 2020, she was contacted to design the cover for TIME Magazine’s “One Last Chance” issue.
Arguably one of your biggest opportunities [as a climate artist] so far has been designing a cover for TIME Magazine. How did you go about creating that piece?
JP: "The Creative Director for TIME is behind most of the covers and I think he has a lot of stuff in mind as potentials for covers, whether it's a photographer, an artist, or someone else to work with. He had heard about my work online in a feature, he didn't remember where, but had been keeping it in mind. And so he had reached out to me because they have been doing a climate issue every July for a while now.
The way that they work in that world is very fast-paced, which is not how I work. I had like two weeks from when he contacted me to kind of design it and get my idea approved and then make it, whereas I would normally spend a few months on a painting! So I just prioritized that but designing something for Time, I really wanted it to [show] global climate change on a big scale, not just focus on the U.S. or a certain region.
And so all of the stories [in the issue] were about global change and I used five different datasets because I really wanted to highlight how these things are really interconnected. And I really wanted to highlight the kind of stuff that I do with my work because there's going to be [in front of] such a big audience. It was really cool to weave together those stories in that way and I was proud of how it turned out and I was so blown away that it was chosen."
The final product, titled Currents, was a culmination of Pelto’s career in science communication, depicting global climate change over two centuries. Datasets subtly weave their way through the artwork, which features delicate watercoloring and intricate details of nature, notably glacial fragments and a dense forest.
The various lines of data in the piece segment her work, and its double meaning is explained with the small labels. The jump in global CO2 emissions and average global temperature is indicated with two lines, as is the positive correlation between land ice and sea sea level—as the “land ice” curve plunges rapidly, the cool blue sea level line skyrockets.
From magazine covers to trekking through the remaining glaciers of Northern Washington State with sketchbook in hand, Jill Pelto stands at the forefront of a new form of climate communication. Her incredible visuals, grounded in science, offer a new way to resonate with people of all ages, genders, and experiences around the world, telling compelling stories of the issues that she cares about most.
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