In 2012 I accompanied Dr. Mauri Pelto, his daughter Jill, and son Ben, to the North Cascade range in Washington, and Easton Glacier, on his annual ice survey, the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, which has been ongoing for 30 years.
Jill, when she wasn’t taking careful measurements, charging up and down insane ice inclines, and leaping over crevasses, would sit, look, and take out her paints.
Climate data is usually seen in pixels, spreadsheets, and maps. But watercolor paintings? Not so much.That’s what makes a growing series of paintings by Maine-based artist Jill Pelto so striking. They combine haunting imagery from the natural world with hard data showing the impact climate change is having.
The message can be subtle, with the global average temperature graph tucked in a painting that shows wildfires raging. But the point is clear. Data — and the way humans are influencing that data by emitting greenhouse gases — is an essential part of the landscape and the changes that are happening.
And by embedding that message within paintings, the works become a Trojan horse for science to reach a public that doesn’t necessarily think about data points and models.
“Most of the population doesn’t pay attention to the scientific community and research,” Pelto said. “That’s the group I want to target.”
The global average temperature, sea-level rise, disappearing Arctic sea ice, and other major climate indicators have made an appearance in Pelto’s artwork. But local climate stories are also something she wants to explore more since they can make pieces even more emotionally resonant.
Her father, Mauri Pelto, is a glacier researcher who has worked in Washington’s North Cascades for decades. Glaciers there have been receding at an alarming rate, including a huge drop in 2015 following the hottest year on record for the region. The warm year also caused a large portion of precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow, further shrinking glaciers across the region.
Summer trips to the region have been a family affair since Jill was in high school and they’re what piqued her interest in making climate impacts clear.
“To me it’s really dramatic and it means a lot because it’s something I personally experienced,” she said. “Seeing signs of climate change that were more evident inspired me to pursue science at the same time as art.”
Next up on the local data-art docket are eastern Canadian caribou, which have seen a rapid decline since the early 2000s. Beyond that, Pelto said she’d like to collaborate with any other scientists looking to have their data become art. And eventually her own research could inform her art once she begins an earth science Master’s this fall at the University of Maine.
A disastrous year is unfolding in 2015 for North Cascade glaciers, if normal melt conditions continue the range will lose 5-7% of its entire glacier volume in one year! For the 32nd consecutive year we were in the North Cascade Range, of Washington to observe the mass balance of glaciers across the entire mountain range. The melt season is not over, but already the mass loss is greater than any other year, with six weeks of melting left. An alpine glacier’s income is the snow that accumulates, and to be have an equilibrium balance sheet for a year, alpine glaciers typically need 50-65% snowcovered surfaces at the end of the melt season. Below the accumulation zone, net assets are lost via ablation.
In 2015 of the 9 glaciers we examined in detail, 6 had less than 2% retained snowcover, which will be gone by the end of August. Two more had no 2015 snowpack greater than 1.7 m in depth, which will also melt away before summer ends. Average ablation during the August field season was 7 cm per day of snow, and 7.5 cm of ice. Only one glacier will have any retained snowcover at the end of the summer, we will be checking just how much in late September. This is the equivalent of a business having no net income for a year, but continuing to have to pay all of its bills. Of course that comes on top of more than 27 years of consecutive mass balance loss for the entire “industry” of global alpine glaciers. The business model of alpine glaciers is not working and until the climate they run their “businesses” in changes, alpine glaciers have an unsustainable business model. Below this is illustrated glacier by glacier from this summer. A following post will look at the glacier runoff aspect of this years field season. The Seattle Times also featured our summer research.
In a recent paper published in the Journal of Glaciology spearheaded by the WGMS group (M. Zemp, H. Frey, I.Gartner-Roer, S.Nussbaumer, M.Hoelzle, F.Paul, W.Haeberli and F.Denzinger), that I was co-author on, we examined the WGMS dataset on glacier front variations (~42 000 observations since 1600), along with glaciological and geodetic observations (~5200 since 1850). The data set illustrated that “rates of early 21st-century mass loss are without precedent on a global scale, at least for the time period observed and probably also for recorded history.The rate of melting has been accelerating, and in the decade from 2001 to 2010, glaciers lost on average 75 centimetres of their thickness each year”, this is compared to the loss in the 1980’s and 1990’s 25 cm and 40 cm respectively each year (Pelto, 2015). A comparison of the global and North Cascade Glacier mass balance records since 1980 indicate the cumulative loss, at bottom.
Measuring firn from 2011-2014 retained in a crevasse on Easton Glacier, 2015 snowpack lacking.
The typical end of summer snowline elevation on Easton Glacier, bare ice and firn in 2015.