OMG: An Artist Flew over the Greenland Icesheet

In a recent article in Nature Climate ChangeSonja van Renssen describes various mediums through which visual artists and musicians represent climate change. She argues that illustrating climate change through art can ground it in our culture and open up new dialogues. She offers several examples, including Justin Brice Guariglia, who recently became the first artist in history to be involved in a NASA mission. He is in the midst of a five-year commitment to join NASA flights over Greenland from 2015 to 2020 in order to visually document changing climate.

Justin Brice Guariglia in front of his piece “APR 23, 2015 19:08:026 GMT.” (Source: Science Friday/Twitter).

Guariglia’s work is inspired by scientific data, but it is not featured directly in his art. His prints focus on the connection between humans and nature during the Anthropocene, the current geologic age of the Earth. As Renssen explains in her paper, the Anthropocene is the time period when “human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”

Guariglia’s enormous pieces dwarf the viewer. Jakobshavn I, a recent project, is an acrylic print on polystyrene that represents a glacier in Greenland. He prints his large-scale photographs on durable materials. Guariglia’s hope is that while the glaciers themselves may not last, his art will endure, according to Renssen.

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One of Guariglia’s pieces on display at TwoThirtyOne Projects in New York City (Source: Justin Brice Guariglia/Instagram).

Guariglia is a member of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) project, which researches the effects of ocean warming on Greenland’s glaciers. The project takes high resolution elevation measurements of these glaciers each year during the spring to measure annual glacier retreat. In addition, a second mission takes place each summer, during which 250 temperature and salinity probes measure the temperature and salinity of water in the Atlantic Ocean. These combined datasets will improve modeling of sea and ice interactions, helping to improve estimates of the contribution of Greenland’s ice to global sea level rise.

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A land art piece in Sante Fe. Participants covered in blue tarp in the dry riverbed are meant to illustrate how climate change affects people at local levels (Source: Don Usner and 350 Earth).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Josh Willis, the principal investigator for the OMG NASA mission, explained that he is “excited by the collaboration with Justin because it means we might be able to connect with people who have a hard time relating climate change to their own daily lives. That’s important to me because climate change is a big deal, and I think we’ve been slow to accept it.” Other scientific organizations like the National Science Foundation agree with NASA’s investment in blending climate change and art. The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program sponsors individuals in the humanities, including painters and photographers, to be inspired by and help document the heritage in Antarctica.

The trend in using art to portray the detrimental effects of climate change could be a creative alternative to communicating environmental risks. For example, alumni and faculty from the University of Miami recently used film, photography, and land art to illustrate climate change issues. Like Guariglia and Willis, this intersection of science and art could be uniquely effective in communicating these risks.

For Jill Pelto, Science Intersects With Art

Jill Pelto aspires to use art, especially screen printing, to communicate climate change, rising sea levels, and the state of threatened species to the world. She has a background in both art and science— she graduated from the University of Maine in 2015 with a double major in Studio Art and Earth Science— and says on her website that ”art is a uniquely articulate lens: through it I can address environmental concerns to raise awareness and inspire people to take action.”

Jill Pelto: Landscape of Change
Jill Pelto: Landscape of Change


Pelto witnessed glacier retreat first-hand as a teenager, and since then images of glaciers have left her with a strong impression. She’s visited glaciers on many occasions. She has accompanied her dad, a glaciologist, to the North Cascade Glaciers of Washington state, and has assisted with research conducted on mountain glaciers in that state. Pelto’s recent work was featured at the University of Maine Art Department’s senior studio art exhibit, “The Ghosts of Carnegie Hall.” Now she is a graduate student at the University of Maine, studying in the Earth Science Program. She spoke to GlacierHub by email. 

Jill Pelto: Decrease in Glaciers
Jill Pelto: Decrease in Glaciers

GlacierHub: Are there any interesting stories or particular feelings you would like to share from you previous visits to glaciers?

Jill Pelto: Working in the field is perhaps my favorite part about working as an Earth Scientist; these trips also lead to a lot of interesting stories. I think it’s very important to note the rate of change that is occurring on Earth. We hear a lot of people state that change in the climate are natural and so on, yet they do not realize that unprecedented rate that has led us to call this a global warming. I think it is important that more people understood why the current changes are not like any in the past, and that they are caused by human influence. I have worked with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project on a group of glaciers in Washington for the past seven years. This is not a long period of time, yet over this interval I have seen huge changes to the glaciers and ecosystems, including the creations of a new meltwater lake.

This past field season, August 2015, I was stunned and saddened by the effects of the drought: almost no snow on the glaciers, huge ice volume loss and retreat, reservoirs and streams depleted, a new lake beneath Columbia Glacier, and forest fire smoke engulfing the sky. When I returned from the field I was inspired to create a series that used data to show people: look, this is happening! It is going to be difficult to change our relationship with the environment, but it is essential that we do so now! I hope that my artwork will communicate both this sense of loss that is occurring, yet also inspire hope and action.

Jill Pelto: Salmon Population
Jill Pelto: Salmon Population


GH: What component do you consider the most important when communicating science to public?

JP: I am really still figuring out how best to share science to a broad audience, but I have always thought artwork was an excellent form of communication. I think this is because the aesthetic visual quality often evokes an emotional reaction. I am trying to use my artwork to share with people the emotions I feel about environmental issues: worry and anger, but also hope and the belief that we can change our relationship with nature for the better. Using research and data in my art has helped communicate well because it informing people about a topic and showing a trend, yet it does not rely on the graph by itself to tell a story. Right now I think the key to communicating science to the public may lie in combining the intellectual to the emotional. One without the other is a much less effective way to bring about change. You need the intellectual so that people know what is happening, but without the emotional they may not pay attention, or may not care enough. The emotional is key for getting people to care, yet without the information they would not learn about why the topic is important, or how and why they can make a difference.


GH: Can you tell us a bit about screen printing?

JP: Screenprinting gives me the unique ability to create an edition of original artworks that are handmade. The whole process is quite complex, yet I am able to turn one work of art into a series that varies in color palette. I use the photoemulsion process for my series and work in the University of Maine print shop run by Susan Groce. I first create a watercolor that will serve as my image. I then scan it and use Photoshop to separate it into its four color layers: Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, and Black (CYMK). These are printed on four separate acetate positives. I can then use a special emulsion and the Print Shop’s UV Light Exposure Unit to expose my images to the screen. The emulsion washes out wherever my image is, allowing the ink to transfer through the screen and onto my paper in this those areas; it is extremely precise.  

Jill Pelto: Habitat Degradation
Jill Pelto: Habitat Degradation

GH: How do scientific research and data motivate your artwork?

JP: For each piece of artwork I research the topic that I wish to communicate. My piece Habitat Degradation: Ocean Acidification, for example, is inspired in particular from two sources that I will share below. The watercolor contains ocean pH data from 1998 to 2012. I wanted to depict the decrease in pH, which is due to atmospheric carbon dissolving into the ocean and creating carbonic acid; this has harmful effects on all marine life. I wanted to include this intellectual content but also portray the emotional response I had when I read that 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.

Pelto’s artwork covers more than just glaciers. Explore more of it here.