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This Artist Turns Dull Data Into Art—and a Call to Action

With hard science, watercolors, and her intimate understanding of glaciers, Jill Pelto raises the alarm over climate change in North Cascades National Park.

For the past seven summers, Jill Pelto has accompanied her father, glaciologist Mauri Pelto, to North Cascades National Park to monitor glaciers. While the work deals with the hard numbers of climate change, Pelto, a recent University of Maine graduate, couldn’t help but be touched deeply by the landscape.

“When you visit a place continuously, you form a relationship with it,” she says. “I have grown to love the old-growth forests, fields of wildflowers, teal glacial pools, and radiant glaciers.”

As a double major in earth science and studio art soon to be embarking on a master’s degree in paleoclimatology, Pelto, 23, wanted to illustrate the changes seen in her father’s and other scientists’ work in ways people outside the scientific community could understand. The solution? Watercolors based on graphs.

“Normal people will often gloss over the graphs in a scientific paper, even though the figures tell a really important story,” Pelto says. “My role as an artist is to engage people emotionally in that story.” Here, Pelto shares the backstories that accompany three of her works.

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"Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance"

“Last year, 2015, was my seventh consecutive year working on North Cascades National Park glaciers with my father and his North Cascade Glacier Climate Project. The drought in Washington absolutely devastated the glaciers and the surrounding ecosystem, and I returned home to Maine determined to create a series that could show people just how drastic these changes are. This year, when I was looking at the data collected and calculated over 33 years, I realized this sharply declining graph line would translate really well as the profile of a glacier. This idea became ‘Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance,’ which uses measurements of the average mass balance—the total snow accumulation minus the total melting—for a group of North Cascades glaciers from 1984 to 2014. Not only are mass balances consistently negative, the rate at which they’re declining is speeding up.”

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"Increasing Forest Fire Activity"

“Fortunately, I was not near any of the massive forest fires that raged before, during, and after my two weeks in Washington during the summer of 2015, but I was greeted with many smoke-filled days. On some days, when the winds blew from the fire toward us, the smell and taste of the smoke overpowered my senses, even though the fire was about a hundred miles away. As temperatures increase, and drought and drier-than-average conditions persist, forest fires become a huge threat to the forest, plants, and animals—and of course to people and structures. This piece, ‘Increasing Forest Fire Activity,’ illustrates the global average temperature rise between 1880 and 2014 using data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.”

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"Salmon Population Decline"

“Seeing the rivers and reservoirs in North Cascades National Park looking so barren was frightening. The snowpack in the mountains and on the glaciers supplies a lot of the water for this region, and the additional lack of precipitation has greatly depleted the state’s water supply. As a result, the water level in the rivers is very low, and it’s not cold enough for the salmon. This piece, ‘Salmon Population Decline,’ illustrates coho salmon population data from the Puget Sound between 1974 and 2009, gathered by the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. I painted the salmon swimming along the length of the graph, following its current, to depict the struggle they face as their spawning habitat declines.”

Desired Superpower: “In high school I created an art portfolio inspired by my love of snow and my wish to protect the environment. One of my pieces shows me painting snow back on a mountain, and this would have to be my superpower. I would be able to imbue my paintbrushes with the ability to paint on changes that would help restore the environment. Each brush would paint a different material: snow on glaciers, trees in clear-cuts, clean water in polluted areas.”

Essential Field Item: “My set of Winsor & Newton watercolors. I have brought them to Washington, Antarctica, the Falklands, British Columbia, and all over New England.”

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