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This Environmental Scientist Makes Art Out Of Climate Data

The Maine-based artist and scientist Jill Pelto creates painterly nature scenes that are actually packed with information.

  • <p>Climate Change Data</p>
  • <p>Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance</p>
  • <p>Habitat Degradation,  Arctic Sea Ice</p>
  • <p>Habitat Degradation, Deforestation</p>
  • <p>Habitat Degradation, Ocean Acidification</p>
  • <p>Increasing Forest Fire Activity</p>
  • <p>Landscape of Change</p>
  • <p>Proxies for the Past</p>
  • <p>Salmon Population Decline</p>
  • 01 /09

    Climate Change Data

  • 02 /09

    Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance

  • 03 /09

    Habitat Degradation, Arctic Sea Ice

  • 04 /09

    Habitat Degradation, Deforestation

  • 05 /09

    Habitat Degradation, Ocean Acidification

  • 06 /09

    Increasing Forest Fire Activity

  • 07 /09

    Landscape of Change

  • 08 /09

    Proxies for the Past

  • 09 /09

    Salmon Population Decline

This past September, the artist and environmental scientist Jill Pelto noticed that a chart of shrinking glaciers actually mimicked the subject matter. A longtime painter, she decided to turn the jagged, sloping line of glacial melt into a painting of one such glacier sinking into the sea. Now she's started a series of what she calls "Geoglacial Artworks"—serene, painterly nature scenes subtly encoded with climate data.

A recent graduate of the University of Maine, where she earned a dual degree in studio art and Earth science, Pelto has always been interested studying the natural world. At 16, she began joining her dad—a professor and glaciologist—on trips to North Cascades National Park in Washington to track data on the size of the glaciers in the park. Six years of field work profoundly affected her, and she has plans to continue her study of climate science with a master's program at University of Maine next fall. It also impacted her artwork—Geoglacial Art seamlessly combines her two main interests.

Landscape of Change

Pelto's evocative paintings turn climate data into imagery that would look more at home on the walls of a gallery than the pages of a scientific journal. She sources the data from trusted organizations like NOAA and NASA, or reads climate news sites for new studies. Her paintings subtly nod to the science: In one image, the spikes and valleys of a graph on salmon population decline to become choppy ocean waves tossing about a few desperate-looking fish. In another, a chart depicting forest fire activity since 1880 becomes the tree line of a forest enveloped in fire. In Landscapes of Change, a chaotic fire-and-ice scene combines several different datasets: sea level rise, glacier volume decline, increasing global temperatures, and increasing use of fossil fuels.

Pelto's practice is a subtle form of art activism, but one that could potentially reach a lot of people. She hopes that the images will bring scientific data to people who wouldn't normally seek it out. "I think that art is something that people universally enjoy and feel an emotional response to," she told Smithsonian Magazine. "People across so many disciplines and backgrounds look at and appreciate it, and so in that sense art is a good universal language. My target audience is in many ways people who aren't going to be informed about important topics, especially scientific ones."

All Images: Jill Pelto

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