Tracking Receding Glaciers Through Paintings With Climate Artist, Jill Pelto
This is not only an adventurous father-daughter trip in the PNW, but an expedition with a clear, meaningful purpose – to track receding glaciers in the area. Jill and her father run the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, founded in 1984 to identify and communicate the response of regional glaciers to climate change.
As a Professor of Environmental Science and the Director of the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, Dr. Mauri Pelto is going there for scientific research and observation.
Although Jill holds a Masters in Earth and Climate Science, she is tracking the glaciers through a much different lens. She is an artist, aiming to portray the vanishing glaciers through a series of paintings. (Check out more on Jill’s website: https://www.jillpelto.com/)
This is the intersection of art, climate science and the outdoors.
POW recently chatted with Jill Pelto about her backpacking trips, communicating science through art and upcoming exhibitions that are in the works:
POW: Jill, can you start by telling us a little about yourself and your work?
Jill: I usually describe myself as a climate change artist. I think that kind of best encompasses what I do, and so I make art about climate change and other environmental topics. And in doing so, I also do a lot of science communication and outreach.
So the project that I am currently working on is basically to make a series of paintings that share about changes to glaciers … so that’s to do with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project. I’m the art director of that project, and my dad, Dr. Mauri Pelto, is the founder and the science director. He’s been running that project for 40 years.
POW: Your dad has been doing this for 40 years, and you have now been joining him for the last 15 years. Can you talk about that experience and what your role is on these trips while you’re there?
Jill: I started going at 16. At that time, I was just kind of there taking everything in. Everything was so new to me. I grew up in Massachusetts, so that landscape … glaciers and all that … were different. So at first, I was learning and helping with all the measurements and things like that.
Over the years, the trips have evolved. I started to participate more and more in organizing it and the logistics. And now, my dad and I both co-lead the field aspect of it.
I co-lead on the logistics of all the gear and food we need every year. We pick a few field assistants to join us to help every year. And as the Art Director, I try to reach out to artists who might be able to come and join us to give them the opportunity to go on the trip and make art about what we do.
POW: How does art help tell the story of climate change as a science communicator, and does science help you inform your art? And does art help you inform science? Does it work both ways?
Jill: It works both ways. There can be a lot of science behind art, and a lot of creativity behind science. Art has this power of tapping into emotion that helps connect people with how they feel and relate to a topic. It allows me to share science stories in a way that highlights the fear, hope, and sadness that they are telling. I really feel like I can combine the disciplines to reach broader audiences by including both visual beauty and information in the forms of data and imagery.
Science helps inform my art because it already holds so much emotion and beauty. When I was in school, I saw this all the time with the scientists around me. When I’m doing fieldwork with a team, we are so passionate about the work, we are feeling the impact of the loss of the mountain glaciers.
Publications, data, and news stories can and do share that, but I feel that art is perhaps the best way to capture the nuance of that emotional side.
Art also helps my science from an observational standpoint. When I am working on a field painting I notice so much about the landscape by working to capture it over a couple of hours. I notice things like the patterns in crevasse fields and icefalls, and newly exposed bedrock and streams.
POW: Let’s go back to these glaciers in the North Cascades that you all have been visiting. What changes have you been seeing and how are these receding glaciers detrimental to that ecosystem and the landscape?
Jill: Since I’ve been going for the last 15 years, the amount of change is significant. Especially the last five or so years. 2015 was a really, really rough year. And ever since then, things just seem to have accelerated.
This year, when we were there in the summer, the ice would’ve been way over my head the year before. So it’s the volume too … that huge chunk of ice that is gone. We usually see all these frogs in this one area, and there were none … things like that. So you can only imagine all the other species that it impacts. And the wild flowers were a lot more stunted. Sometimes it almost seems like they get crisped up from the sun, like sunburnt. They’re not adapted to major heat waves.
On the eastern side of the Cascades, the glaciers in that system are basically all on the brink of collapse. They’re doing so badly. And one of the small ones we work on … we determined this year that it is no longer a glacier. It’s weird to witness the death of something like that. Because there’s still ice there, but glaciers have to be flowing. It’s just a stagnant pile of ice and snow, so it’s not a glacier anymore.
A lot of those glaciers in that region supply the water where I live in Eastern Washington, an area for farming and wineries. They rely on all that water.
POW: You’ve mentioned the lack of funding in the science and art fields. So what do you feel like fuels you for these projects? It’s obviously passion, but passion for what exactly?
Jill: We actually had a chat this week with my dad and some people on the project, and we were talking about … I guess what glaciers and these landscapes mean to us. What was it like to go there for the first time and what do you look forward to? What drives you going out there every year?
It’s hard to put into words, but for me, glaciers feel like they hold so much power, and because they’re flowing and changing all the time, they’re living things with their own characteristics that are easy to personify and fall in love with. I think we can all relate to falling in love with a landscape and it meaning so much to you.
So because I get to do this project, I get to see these places every year. It’s obviously formed such an emotional bond of caring about them and wanting to be a part of measuring that. It’s not just about the science … it’s also magical to be in these spaces and get to participate in protecting and preserving their memory … recording them as they change. That’s why I make so much art about it.
POW: Can you give us a sneak peek into the exhibition you are planning this year?
Jill: I am currently working with fellow environmental artist Claire Giordano and the POW Creative Alliance to create an art exhibition about glacier change. We are planning to hold the show somewhere in western Washington, hopefully in Fall of 2024. We already have 4 other artists on board, so it will be a group exhibition highlighting important stories of change, loss, and hope around glacial landscapes.
Stay tuned to both my and Claire’s instagram, as well as POW’s, to learn more!
Jill Pelto – https://www.instagram.com/jillpelto/
Claire Giordano – https://www.instagram.com/claireswanderings/
Author: Mandy Karako
Mandy grew up in the hill country of Austin, Texas where she spent many of her weekends outside on the lake, wakeboarding, water skiing and finding any and all high cliffs to jump off of. She attended University of Colorado Boulder where she earned a degree in Environmental Studies and interned for various environmental nonprofits, […]