March 30, 2021
By: Cal Waichler, Jill Pelto, and Mariama Dryak.
It is the evening of Aug. 9th, 2020 and six of us are camped near the terminus of Easton Glacier. The sun has dropped below the moraine ridge above camp and a chilly breeze has forced us to put on layers. We are enjoying dinner cooked on our camp stoves, discussing what we observed on the ice today. The toll of climate change on Easton Glacier, on the southern flank of Mount Baker, is impossible to escape. We are here to both measure this change and communicate what it means.
Within our team of six, four of us are trained as scientists, and all of us highly value creative science communication. This passion can manifest as art (painting, printmaking, sketching), writing, podcasting, blogging or video-making. We all appreciate that exercising creativity with others can provide us with a unique context for communicating about glaciers and climate change.
The Easton Glacier is large and stretches up to 2950 m elevation. We are here to monitor its health for the 31st consecutive year: its snow coverage, snow depth, terminus retreat, change in surface profile, and its annual mass balance (snow gain vs. snow loss). Easton Glacier is one of the forty-two World Glacier Monitoring Service reference glaciers, meaning it has 30+ consecutive year of mass balance observations, qualifying it for this select group. To learn more about this glacier over time, check out https://glaciers.nichols.edu/easton/ and a previous Easton Glacier update.
While we are at Easton Glacier to measure annual changes, we also see this landscape in the realm of both art and science. From the artistic lens we may note the same things that we do during research: the debris covering the retreating terminus, the crevasses melting down and getting shallower. But we also notice the beauty of these structures, how the crevasse patterns splay out across a knob, and the parallel lines preserved on a serac – recording five years of accumulation like rings on a tree. Observation is a theme in both art and science. We train our eyes to notice things in different ways, to pay attention to certain details. We are able to document these changes in our field notebooks, but also in sketchbooks, journals, photos, and videos.
The records of beauty stored in our sketchbooks serve as a qualitative reminder of what this landscape looks and feels like. In the process of depicting the landscape at the end of a field day, we paint our joy and exhaustion onto the page. In the moment, this act uncovers more details and allows us to reflect. Weeks later when we are off the mountain, we reopen our water-logged, dirt-streaked pages and are taken back to that place where we were. Field sketches, poems and paintings help us capture the emotion of moving through and attempting to understand sublime spaces. They are a vital link between our memories and sharing the meaning of our experience with others. They are also a deliberate recording of time and place — a kind of data in their own right.
The experience of working in this environment is memorable to us — we get to observe a plethora of crevasses, dozens of meltstreams, and strikingly beautiful colors. We can feel a range of excited, inspired, and nervous emotions throughout the day. For us, this experience is giving us the emotional context to our research: being present we can understand that “why”. That reason why the work matters not just for scientific knowledge, or the local ecosystem, but also for humanity. The science results alone can share the data that underlies that, but they might not always connect with other people in a way that elicits that comprehension. Our creative communication through writing and art can elicit that deeper, emotional understanding of why it’s important to preserve and protect these places, and why we need to understand the amount of change that will occur to the climate and ecosystem. Our collection of art shares stories about Easton Glacier in ways that connect with the science, and also go beyond it.
This summer we all felt especially fortunate to be in the North Cascades. Covid-19 has kept us all so isolated and often indoors. The chance to work on the glaciers and live at their feet for two weeks gave us back some of the breathing room we lacked in 2020 – a lucky opportunity indeed.
Cal’s Art – clairewaichler.com
Mariama’s website – Let’s Do Something Big
Jill’s Art – jillpelto.com