Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Just Disserts

October 3, 2007

Combating Climate Change's Double Whammy

Scientist Katey Walter tells Gelf how the melting Siberian permafrost is releasing tons of greenhouse gases into the air—and why that might be a good thing.

J. Michelangelo Stein

Quaint, anachronistic, perhaps extinct. Is this the state of the so-called "public-intellectual"? It would be easy to launch into a jeremiad lamenting the sad reality that Christopher Hitchens is postmodernity's answer to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, Gelf plans to intermittently drag young academics out from their unendowed folding-chairs to talk to us about how their research is changing the world.

Katey Walter on the Mendenhall Glacier. Image courtesy Steve Backshall.
"It's really helpful to have critics—as long as they're educated critics."

Katey Walter on the Mendenhall Glacier. Image courtesy Steve Backshall.

Siberia, a land best known for frigid desolation, is now an unlikely culprit in climate change. Researcher Katey Walter has studied the Siberian icescapes and discovered a disquieting trend: As the permafrost melts due to the rise in the Earth's average temperature, it compounds the problem by releasing considerable amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere.

It is enough to drive most people to cult worship or unbridled hedonism. But, ever the enterprising scientist, Walter sees a possible fix in this could-be-doomsday scenario. If the effervescing methane could be harnessed somehow and used as an alternative energy source, then it would stay out of the atmosphere and at the same time help reduce the harmful emissions from fossil fuels.

Like political scientist Paul Collins (whom Gelf interviewed earlier), Walter, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Northern Engineering , was a 2006 recipient of the biannual CGS/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award. Also, her research on climate change was recently published in the pre-eminent science journal Nature. (You can read more about her research on her website [PDF].) Aware of the important role that public awareness will play in steering the Earth away from calamity, Walter has also collaborated on both a BBC documentary and a Discovery Channel Movie. In this interview with Gelf, edited for clarity, she discusses life in Siberia, the politics of global warming, and the network of methane-measurers she's working to set up all across the shrinking tundra.

Gelf Magazine: Why Siberia?

Katey Walter: It has a special kind of permafrost: a super icy permafrost with a high amount of organic carbon that's been frozen in the ground. It's high-quality carbon because, basically, it's been in the freezer for so long. And it becomes food for bacteria—like eating pizza, they gobble it up and make greenhouse gases very quickly.

GM: What was it like to live over there?

KW: I loved it. I learned Russian when I was 16—I went as an exchange student in 1992, right when the Soviet Union had opened up. I was learning the alphabet on the airplane but stayed a year and learned the language. I fell in love with the Russian people and culture and looked for excuses to go back. Science became that excuse. In the beginning my passion was for Russia. Now maybe it's switched, but they are two things that complement each other well.

I spent six or seven months a year there for over three years doing research. It's a more extreme form of living. But it was important to be right by the lake. You have to be pretty patient and resourceful and tough to work in Siberia, and flexible, because whatever your plan is usually changes and lots of wrenches get thrown into things. But if you remain open, you discover lots of new things.

GM: How would you explain your research to someone who is not a scientist?

KW: I measure how much methane is bubbling up outside of lakes in Siberia and Alaska, and I set up networks so people can do it all around the Arctic. I look for how much methane there is and its isotope signature, its chemistry. As long as carbon stays in the ground, we don't have much going into the atmosphere. But when that carbon gets released from the permafrost, it has implications for climate change.

Bubbling methane

Methane bubbles in an ice-covered Siberian lake. Photo courtesy of Katey Walter.

GM: How has your research changed what we know about global warming?

KW: There is a lot of methane coming out of these lakes with the permafrost thawing, and that's not included in current global-warming models. They would have to be revised to show a faster level of change. Methane can cause climate change, but it's also a resource we can use for society. You'd have to capture it and see how far it is from places it can be used. There is an engineering challenge.

GM: Are we close to harnessing it?

KW: It's not something impossible.

GM: What's it like working in a field that is so politicized?

KW: It's really good. You know the science you are doing matters to people and can be used to make decisions. People are interested in methane emissions and how it's contributing to climate change. Another question is whether this gas can be used as a fuel source, for people who live in villages in the Arctic.

GM: What would you say to someone who doesn't believe that global warming is happening or that it's not manmade?

KW: I think it's really important to have people asking critical questions, because if everyone saw it the same way we wouldn't advance the field. But it's important for them to look at the data. It's really helpful to have critics—as long as they're educated critics.

GM: What has Bush's presidency meant for people in your field?

KW: Oh, I'm not going to respond to that.

GM: Why not?

KW: I would be speaking for other people I don't have the right to speak for and in my own life—it hasn't affected me. I have had support for my work and so far it's been great. So [the Bush administration] hasn't affected me directly, since I'm very young. It has affected other people, but I'm not going to speak for them.

GM: Can you tell us anything about the BBC documentary you're working on?

KW: It's going to air later this month. It's called Earth: the Biography. This episode was a segment on atmospheres, so it included a lot more things than I'm involved with. I took them to Siberia and showed them the ice, like how the methane could light on fire. This summer, I was working on a Discovery Channel movie. It's called Expedition Alaska (coming out in February) and looks at climate change there. We spent a little over a month out in the field exploring different places where the ice is changing all around Alaska. We also looked at how climate change is affecting the native cultures and local wildlife.

GM: What did you learn?

KW: A lot of what I focus on is the permafrost, so it was really interesting to see the other changes up close: the sea ice, the polar bears. To get out there firsthand and not read it in newspapers or hear about them in professional conferences made me see how vulnerable Alaska is to climate change. Alaska as we know it won't be that way in my children's lifetime. I don't have children, so that means the next generation.

GM: Can I extrapolate from your work on these movies that you plan to be a scientist who is very engaged with the public?

KW: I really enjoy it and think it's really important. It's fun to help other people, especially kids, get into science. It's really an adventure.

GM: As climate models seem to get worse and worse, what do you say to doomsdayers who think catastrophe is, at this point, unavoidable?

KW: I think it all makes us think more creatively. One way to combat catastrophe would be to harness the methane and convert it to carbon dioxide and water, taking a dangerous greenhouse gas and making it useful.

Related on Gelf: Climatologist Gerald Kukla tells Gelf why he thinks an ice age is in our future.

J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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- Just Disserts
- posted on Apr 23, 08

The expedition Alaska documentary is one of the worst I've ever seen. I live in Alaska and I could tell that those who made the movie and some researchers (e.g. Walter) did not know what they were talking about. Isn't she an ecologist? What does she know about permafrost, glaciers, sea ice and polar bear??? Not much apparently. Very alarmist, very sensationalist, hollywood style...waste of time!

Article by J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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