December 09, 2019
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Artistic scientist illustrates effects of climate change

Old Town’s Jill Pelto has been visiting the North Cascade Glaciers of Washington State with her father since she was 16 years old.

“I had seen pictures growing up of my dad’s trip, but it doesn’t prepare you for what it’s like out there,” Pelto said. “I was amazed at how beautiful the glaciers are.”

The rugged mountains and snowy summits were stark and beautiful.

“I was in awe,” she said.

She’s returned to Washington State every year since then, but things have drastically changed since her first experience at 16 years old.

Now she’s trying to explain those changes through her artwork.

Originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, Pelto, now 22, graduated in December from the University of Maine as a double major in studio art and earth science.

“I started working in Washington in 2009 when I was 16,” Pelto said. “I was able to do that because my father, Mauri Pelto, got his Ph.D. at UMaine, and when he was a doctoral student here he started a research project in Washington that he’s still doing now. The purpose [of the project] was to create a continuous glacial monitoring program where every year he would survey the glaciers to figure out how the size was changing.”

Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts and glaciologist, started the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project in 1984 and has studied glaciers and the rapid changes they have undergone for over 25 years.

As Jill Pelto says, she is “following in his footsteps.”

Jill Pelto, an artist and scientist, recently completed a project as part of her honors thesis that explores the issues of human-induced climate change she has studied with her father over many years of study.

“I call it environmental art,” she said. “The way I use it is specifically to communicate particular issues.”

Increasing forest fire activity, salmon population decline and a decrease in glacier mass balance are three of the many issues Jill Pelto addresses in her artwork — issues she observed firsthand when working in Washington.

Jill Pelto returned to Washington again in 2015, but the scene she observed was much different from what she saw on her very first trip.

“Because of the drought out there, there was so little snowfall. The changes to the whole area from the drought and lack of snow was unlike anything I had ever seen,” Jill Pelto said. “It was scary and sad for me because I had been going for so many years.”

New lakes were forming at the bottom of glaciers. The melting masses revealed debris. Forest fires were ravaging the area. Fortunately, she wasn’t near any of them, but some days the wind blew smoke from the fires toward her.

“It’s really hard because I have these specific memories. Sometimes the changes happen slowly, but this year it was like, ‘Wow, everything is different,’” Jill Pelto said.

According the studies done by the Peltos, human impact was taking its toll.

Jill Pelto made it her mission to show others the facts through unique watercolors and screen prints that illustrate the effects of climate change by integrating scientific data with her own unique artwork.

“I incorporated a graph with data points and used some sort of illustration to give a narrative about what the piece was about,” Jill Pelto said. “A lot of scientists don’t know how to communicate their research. … Since I’m involved in both the science world and the art world, I think I have a unique ability to bridge those.”

Her watercolors and screenprints depict scenes both intriguing and heartbreaking: a steady incline of a graph that mixes with blazing reds and oranges of a forest fire; a steep descending graph integrated with the an image of shrinking glaciers to illustrate changes in glacier mass balance; and many others, including graphs depicting declining salmon populations, ocean acidification and habitat degradation.

In addition to her trips to Washington for the past seven years, Jill Pelto has visited the Antarctic Dry Valleys and the Falkland Islands. She has been on scientific missions for every trip and observed firsthand the devastation caused by climate change.

The purpose behind her artwork is simple: awareness.

“A lot of the information out there isn’t that accessible,” Jill Pelto said. “I can use some of what [scientists are] saying — the broad points and their data — and put it into an art piece that a broader audience is going to understand.”

“We’ve been able to make environmentally positive changes in the past and I think we can do that now,” Jill Pelto said. “The more people who know and are more informed, the better.”

Jill Pelto’s work is currently featured at the University of Maine art department’s senior studio art exhibit, “The Ghosts of Carnegie Hall,” where it will be on display until Jan. 22, 2016, in Lord Hall on the University of Maine campus.



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