Bringing Climate Change Statistics to Life


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Impressive is an understatement when describing Jill Pelto. An artist, scientist, and climate activist, Jill travels to remote locations collecting data about climate change and turns her research into paintings, using the power of art to change minds.
Art has the power to transform the way people think and behave: it can both change one’s understanding of climate data and spur sustainable behavior.
It is a vehicle for changing perception in a way that other mediums cannot.
“Skirt the Crevasse”, watercolor.
Climate change is still a troublingly common topic of debate, rather than an issue that we are collectively taking actions toward ending.
Overwhelmed by the hopelessness of difficult-to-process statistics and a sea of data they don’t understand, many are immobilized with fear, or disengaged altogether. In the fight to compel believers to take action and convince deniers that it’s not all a great coincidence, art can translate the data into an accessible format.
As a scientist, Jill saw all of this data, but as an artist, she was compelled to make that information digestible.
A bold new presence in both the science and art worlds of climate change, Jill Pelto is taking action toward spreading the realities of the statistics that have come to define our planet’s changing environments.
“Heliotrope Camp”, watercolor.
Jill has spent the past year traveling to remote locations to collect data, sketching images of the fleeting beauty of the spaces, and traveling home to create art that summarizes the complicated data points into an emotional and telling work – calling on art’s powerful appeal to alter perceptions. Learn from Jill about how she uses art and science to tell our planet’s story:
“Climate Change Data”, watercolor.
“My story as an artist and scientist is intertwined with all of my 24 years of life. I was raised in a family who taught that creativity could be used everywhere and anywhere, a family that spent significant amounts of time outdoors. There is something that seems to link many artisans in that we develop a passion for creation from a young age; this was certainly the case for my twin sister, Megan, and I.
We were constantly drawing for as long as I can remember and that simply never stopped; neither one of us ever considered not incorporating art into our careers.
Megan is now an illustrator and creator of a spectrum of work; my brother, Ben is a scientist, currently a PhD candidate at University of Northern British Columbia. And I am in the middle, trying to do a bit of both. I began working with the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project when I was 16.
Jill paints on site in British Columbia.
My dad, Mauri Pelto, began this project as a PhD student at the University of Maine in 1983, and every year since he has spent several weeks each August on the North Cascade glaciers in Washington, monitoring their health and providing ground truth measurements that record their decline. Being a part of this gave me the chance to experience wilderness, to experience new habitats, to explore glaciers, and to learn about our world.
Working on glaciers helped grow my passion for the sciences, and I chose to pursue the Earth Science field as my dad and brother had (although it was a hard decision between that, marine science, and wildlife ecology!). So I pursued both Studio Art and Earth Science majors at UMaine, and constantly worked both sides of my brain while learning from two wonderful departments.
Collecting data in Falkland Islands.
Because of my interests and background I started making environmental art pieces in high school, and continued to do so in high school. It wasn’t until my junior year of college though that I started really pushing to try and create work that had strong messages about the importance of conservation and about climate change. I struggled for a few years trying out different ideas and styles, but not really hitting upon anything I felt communicated powerfully enough.
“Salmon Population Decline”, watercolor.
Then, in the summer of 2015, my 7th year working with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, I was blown away by the effects of the drought in Washington. It felt like I was truly witnessing how the ecosystem in this place that is precious to me was going to shift during my lifetime, and I wanted to hold on to the wave of emotion this caused me, and put that into my art.
Looking at my dad’s 30+ years of mass balance data (snow accumulation – snow melt), I realized that this negative trend (representing glacier volume loss) would be the perfect profile of a retreating glacier. Graphs can communicate information really effectively, but many people may not be exposed to or pay attention to them.
“Climate Change Data”, watercolor.
I thought that simply sharing the positive or negative trend would provide a clear visual of what types of changes are occurring. My hope was that by combining scientific information with aesthetic visuals I could create artwork that was both intellectually and emotionally stimulating.”