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University of Alaska Fairbanks
Investigate the content of methane--a significant greenhouse gas--in arctic lake ice bubbles using field surveys and remote sensing analysis. This evaluation will be the first circumpolar estimate of methane emissions for arctic lakes.
"I would say come with me, and we'll jump around in the lake and watch as our clothes fill up with methane gas like a balloon."
"I remember flying into Alaska and feeling the thrill. Just looking through the airplane window and feeling the thrill that this is Alaska," says Walter. "All the field trips around the state that summer, and studying with geologists who loved what they were doing, it instilled a certain dream in me."
Walter has come a long way since the days of a college girl on a summer trip to the state, but she seems to have found her way home. This time Walter comes to Alaska as a biologist jumping with both feet into her career, and hoping to make a significant contribution to the legacy of International Polar Year.
Walter's piece of the global warming puzzle? Methane--a gas that absorbs infrared radiation and that has recently increased in our atmosphere, drawing the attention of scientists worldwide.
During Walter's graduate work she discovered that scientists were missing what could be a key producer of methane in the Arctic. As permafrost melts beneath the surface of an arctic lake, it releases carbon in the form of trapped organic material. This organic matter becomes food for the organisms living in those lakes. The organisms then convert the carbon into methane, which can be seen bubbling out of the lakes.
Walter discovered that previous methods of studying these methane bubbles were detecting only a fifth of the methane than was actually being emitted. So, she proposed a project to use satellite imagery combined with field observations to better measure the emissions.
Her data will provide researchers from around the world with a better picture of what is happening as permafrost continues to melt. This information will also provide an important snapshot of the Arctic that can be studied alongside other information being gathered from around the world during IPY to document and understand our changing climate.
"It's called a positive feedback cycle," says Walter. "The more warming, the more permafrost thaws along lake margins, the more greenhouse gas gets released, contributing to further warming. We're interested in whether or not permafrost thaw is accelerating and how much methane will be released as a result."
Even before college, Walter learned about permafrost while a high school exchange student in Russia. Today, she's teaming up with colleagues in Siberia and adding to the collective resources of information. The ultimate goal is to discover potential solutions, like trying to keep the permafrost frozen by introducing large mammals to compact snow and help the cold penetrate more deeply into ground, or figuring out how to trap and use the methane as fuel.
So why science? Says Walter, "For me, science has been an opportunity to travel and explore and discover--science is the path to adventure. Also, I have discovered that science requires creativity--in that way, it is like art."
Images courtesy Katey Walter unless otherwise noted
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