Apocalypse in Watercolor

Jill Pelto illustration with the ocean in the foreground and two layers of glacier in the left rear, with the horizon shaped by a line graph moving down from left to right. Four suns are arranged in an arc in the background.

As both an artist and a physical scientist, I have a multidisciplinary view that allows me to consider distinct modes of communication. At the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences, I often hear about scientific research into large questions, like how global temperature increase correlates to forest fire frequency or why the Earth has ice ages. But I have come to understand that sharing this work with the public can require different skills than those used to produce it. As a medium of communication, art can penetrate any discipline. When I encounter a new dataset (or create my own!), I’m inspired to capture the emotions behind it in paint.

The works in this gallery pair graphical representations of historical environmental changes with visuals that together help share science stories with a broader audience.

Jill Pelto illustration of a glacier, its top edge a line graph dropping severely from left to right.

Jill Pelto, Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance

Decrease in Glacier Mass Balance uses measurements from 1980 to 2014 of the average mass balance for a group of North Cascade, Washington glaciers. Mass balance is the annual budget for the glaciers: total snow accumulation minus total snow ablation. Not only are mass balances consistently negative, they are also continually decreasing. (Reference: Mauri Pelto, “Disasterous Year for North Cascade Glacier Mass Balance,” From a Glacier’s Perspective, August 20, 2015)

Jill Pelto illustration using a line graph rising from left to right with its spikes representing the tops of trees and a flames and smoke painted in the background.

Jill Pelto, Increasing Forest Fire Activity

I created a series about some of the major impacts of global warming that I witnessed in Washington State during the summer of 2015, using scientific data to show how the drought is devastating the state.

Increasing Forest Fire Activity uses global temperature rise information. Fortunately, I was not near any of the massive forest fires that raged before, during, and after my two weeks in Washington, but I was greeted with many smoke-filled days. On some days, when the winds blew from the fire toward us, the smell and taste of the smoke overpowered my senses, even though the fire was about 100 miles away. As temperatures increase, and drought and drier-than-average conditions persist, forest fires become a huge threat to the forest, plants, animals—and of course to people and structures. (Reference: “Rise in Global Temps Since 1880,” Climate Central, April 21, 2015)

A watercolor by Jill Pelto illustrating three Coho salmon swimming above the peaks of a line graph, below which is painted blue to resemble water.

Jill Pelto, Salmon Population Decline

Salmon Population Decline uses population data about the Coho species. Seeing the rivers and reservoirs of Washington looking so barren was frightening. The snowpack in the mountains and on the glaciers supplies a lot of the water for this region, and the additional lack of precipitation has greatly depleted the state’s hydrosphere. Consequently, the water level in the rivers the salmon spawn in is very low, and not cold enough for them. The salmon are depicted swimming along the length of the graph, following its current. While salmon can swim upstream, it is becoming more of an uphill battle with lower stream flow and higher temperatures. This image depicts the struggle their population is facing as its spawning habitat declines. (Reference: Mauri Pelto, “Salmon Challenges from Glaciers to the Salish Sea,” From a Glacier’s Perspective, June 8, 2015)

Jill Pelto illustration with the ocean in the foreground and two layers of glacier in the left rear, with the horizon shaped by a line graph moving down from left to right. Four suns are arranged in an arc in the background.

Jill Pelto, Climate Change Data

Climate Change Data uses multiple quantities: the annual decrease in global glacier mass balance, global sea level rise, and global temperature increase. I wanted to convey in an image how all of this data must be compared and linked together to figure out the fluctuations in Earth’s natural history. One of the reasons scientists study what happened in the past is to understand what may happen now as a result of human-induced climate change. I represented this by illustrating that glaciers are melting and calving, sea levels are risings, and temperatures are increasing. The numbers on the left y-axis depict quantities of glacial melt and sea level rise, and the suns across the horizon contain numbers that represent the global increase in temperature, coinciding with the timeline on the lower x-axis. (References, “Sea Level Rise,” WXshift; Mauri Pelto, “Disasterous Year for North Cascade Glacier Mass Balance,” From a Glacier’s Perspective, August 20, 2015; NOAA/NASA Annual Global Analysis for 2015; Joe Romm, “Rate Of Climate Change To Soar By 2020s, With Arctic Warming 1°F Per Decade,” Think Progress, March 10, 2015; “Causes of Sea Level Rise: What the Science Tells Us,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013)

Jill Pelto illustation of a school of orange and white clown fish swimming beneath the low peaks of a line graph painted to look like coral.

Jill Pelto, Habitat Degradation: Ocean Acidification

Habitat Degradation is a series which comments on humans’ negative impacts on ecosystems worldwide. For each of the three habitats I depict, I chose representative species who are responding to the effects of the changes.

Habitat Degradation: Ocean Acidification contains ocean pH data from 1998 to 2012. The decreasing pH is due to atmospheric carbon dissolving into the ocean, and creating carbonic acid, which means a more acidic ocean. This has harmful effects on all marine life. Studies on clownfish show that more acidic water alters how their brains process information. This affects their ability to avoid predators by detecting noises and find their way home. Ocean water has a lower pH than a fish’s cells, so they take in carbonic acid in order to be in harmony with their environment. Even a small drop in pH requires fish to expend much more energy in order to equilibrate, and this energy is taken from other necessary functions. The clownfish in my watercolor are grouped in confusion, separated from the anemone in which they live. The oceans may be vast, but if pH drops globally, there is literally nowhere marine life can go; they are confined to the water. (Reference: “Ocean Acidification,” WXshift)

Jill Pelto illustration of two white foxes on a white background made to look like a glacier with its spikes formed by a line graph. In the background ice floats on a dark blue ocean.

Jill Pelto, Habitat Degradation: Arctic Melt

Habitat Degradation: Arctic Melt shows Arctic sea ice data from 1980 to the present. Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to decline so quickly that species cannot adjust. The Arctic fox is small and extraordinarily resilient to the most severe cold. They can withstand the frigid north and thus have this corner of the world in which to hunt. But when the temperatures mellow, competition from larger species could overcome them, as other species move further north to escape their own warming environment. I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish. One is hunched and defensive, the other is yowling in panic. The sea ice, from which they are separated, is spaced out by large expanses of dark blue water absorbing the sun’s heat. (Reference: “Artic Sea Ice,” WXshift)

Jill Pelto illustration using a line graph dropping from left to right with the top-right half of the image filled with green leaves and the bottom left featuring a tiger on a white background.

Jill Pelto, Habitat Degradation: Deforestation

Habitat Degradation: Deforestation uses data showing the decline in rainforest area from 1970 to 2010. These lush ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes, and with them, millions of beautiful species. I’m quite certain that anyone would agree that a tiger is a magnificent creature, yet how many people realize that they are critically endangered? For this series I chose to separate the animals from their habitat, because that is ultimately what we are doing. The tiger is trapped outside the forest, cornered. He is defensive and angry that we are sealing his fate. (Reference: Femke Koopmans, “Datasheet Tiger,” World Wildlife Foundation, June 2012)

Jill Pelto illustrations of a red line graph superimposed over illustrations of (left to right) ice corps, cross sections of trees, and green lichens.

Jill Pelto, Proxies for the Past

Proxies for the Past is inspired by the universal unknowns, which humans try to solve by using materials such as ice cores, tree rings, and lichens to date past climate events. Nature reveals some of its secrets in these concentric forms, allowing us to determine information such as the data depicted: the average global temperature of Earth from 11,000 years ago to the present. Thus, natural materials help us to understand a small portion of Earth’s history. (Reference: Michon Scott, “What’s the Hottest Earth Has Been ‘Lately’?” ClimateWatch Magazine, September 2014)

Jill Pelto illustration of four patterns layered on top of each other, each shaped by the corresponding line graph. From bottom to top: a light grey section indicating fossil fuels, fire, ice, and ocean. The sun shines in the upper-left corner.

Jill Pelto, Landscapes of Change

Landscape of Change uses data about sea level rise, glacier volume decline, increasing global temperatures, and the increasing use of fossil fuels. These data lines compose a landscape shaped by the changing climate, a world in which we are now living. (References: “Sea Level Rise,” WXshift; Mauri Pelto, “Disasterous Year for North Cascade Glacier Mass Balance,” From a Glacier’s Perspective, August 20, 2015; NOAA/NASA Annual Global Analysis for 2015; John Cook, “Is Antarctica Losing or Gaining Ice?” Skeptical Science, April 2008; “EIA Forecast: Fossil Fuels Remain Dominant Through 2040” Institute for Energy Research, December 17, 2013)

Featured image: Jill Pelto, “Climate Change Data” 

Jill Pelto is an artist and a graduate student in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine. She has been featured by National GeographicPBS NewsHour, and Smithsonian. Visit Etsy to purchase prints of her work. Website. Twitter. Contact.

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