Communicating science through art

Grad student’s watercolor paintings of landscapes, animals incorporate climate change data
Photo by Holland Haverkamp

Communicating science through art

Grad student’s watercolor paintings of landscapes, animals incorporate climate change data

University of Maine graduate student Jill Pelto is passionate about communicating science in an easily understandable and visually appealing way.

To raise awareness of climate change, Pelto creates watercolor paintings of landscapes and animals that incorporate scientific data in the form of graphs.

“As a scientist, I am able to learn about and conduct studies on both past and present climate change,” Pelto says. “I see data every day that communicates research so effectively, but only to a particular audience. My goal is to share this important and interesting information with a broader audience by creating pieces that raise awareness about environmental topics, and eventually inspire people to take action.”

In the past year, reports on Pelto have been published by local and national news organizations, including Climate Central, Public Radio International (PRI) and PBS NewsHour. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio also shared Pelto’s art on his official Instagram account, which focuses on climate issues. In summer 2016, Pelto was featured in National Geographic as part of the series, “20 Under 30: The Next Generation of National Park Leaders.”

Her art also has been featured in several publications, including on the front and back of the State of the Climate in 2015, an international, peer-reviewed publication released each summer as a supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The annual summary of the global climate is compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate at the National Centers for Environmental Information, and is based on contributions from scientists from around the world, according to the AMS.

The front cover featured Pelto’s piece, “Landscape of Change,” which uses data about sea level rise, glacier volume decline, higher global temperatures and the increasing use of fossil fuels. The data lines compose a landscape shaped by the changing climate, “a world in which we are now living,” according to Pelto.

Art on the back of the report, “Salmon Population Decline,” uses population data about the Coho species in the Puget Sound to depict the struggle as spawning habitat declines.

Pelto, an honors student who graduated from UMaine in December 2015 with a double major in Earth science and studio art, is pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences.

In December 2016 and January 2017, Pelto spent four weeks working in the field with her adviser, glacial geology professor Brenda Hall, reconstructing the deglacial history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. During the trip, the team focused on the Amundsen Glacier, an outlet glacier of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Transantarctic Mountains.

To reconstruct the deglacial history of the ice from its maximum extent during the last glaciation, the researchers are mapping and dating landforms and deposits from the past on small ice-free areas alongside the glacier.

Pelto and Hall collected ancient algae several centimeters below the glacier’s surface and mapped glacial features in the two field locations — Robinson Bluff and Witalis Peak.

When the glaciers were larger, they extended into these now ice-free valleys, and as they retreated they dammed ice marginal ponds, where algae grew, Pelto says. As the ice stepped down the valley in elevation, these ponds followed the ice front. The previous location of the pond was then preserved by the algae, which researchers can locate and date to find out when this occurred. Given that the ice had to have been thick enough to at least dam these ponds, this also provides a minimum glacier elevation.

After Antarctica, Pelto traveled to New Zealand to work with another group of UMaine researchers looking at the glacial history of the Southern Alps.

The long-term project was started in the late 1990s by George Denton, UMaine’s Libra Professor of Geological Sciences; Thomas Lowell, a glacial geology professor at the University of Cincinnati and UMaine alumnus; and the late Bjorn Andersen, a Norwegian professor of Quaternary geology and glaciology. The project has studied and reconstructed the Quaternary glacial history throughout the Southern Alps for more than two decades, and has involved many notable scientists, according to Pelto.

Jill Pelto, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences, paints a watercolor of Cass River in New Zealand, one of the passes that cuts through the mountains and delivers water to Lake Tekapo. The photo was taken in February 2017 while Pelto conducted six weeks of field work. “When we had finished our field work for the day — collecting rock samples and mapping — I would create field watercolors of my surroundings,” Pelto says. “I loved the ocher tones of the tussock grasses in contrast with the purple-blue-reds of the surrounding mountains.” Photo courtesy of Jill Pelto

For six weeks beginning in mid-January in New Zealand, Pelto joined Denton; Aaron Putnam, the George H. Denton Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences at UMaine; and Peter Strand, a UMaine Ph.D. candidate.

She assisted Strand in fieldwork around Lake Tekapo, mapping glacial features and collecting samples from the rocks deposited by glaciers.

“I am learning from all three on the team — how to identify features, how to sample, the glacial history of this region,” says Pelto, who also is taking independent study courses with Denton and Putnam, in which she is reading and writing about paleoclimate literature focused on glaciation.

“I get the opportunity to explore some of the beautiful landscape in New Zealand while simultaneously learning about it from experts,” Pelto says.

In summer 2016, Pelto participated in the Rozalia Project, a program that protects and cleans the ocean using technology, innovation, solutions-based research and engaging STEM programs. She spent a week onboard the project’s 60-foot sailing research vessel, cleaning the ocean and educating others about the work.

For the eighth consecutive year, she also spent part of the summer working with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, a monitoring project of glaciers in the North Cascades in Washington state. The program is led by her father, Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts. He started the project in the 1980s while pursuing his Ph.D. at UMaine.

Pelto says now that she has professionally begun an art career, she plans to work as an artist for the rest of her life, while still pursuing science.

“I will always be involved in the sciences, but I don’t yet know the degree to which my work will entail being a research scientist or a scientist communicating art,” she says.

More of Pelto’s art can be seen on her website,

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