Alia Khan, a brand new Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences in the Huxley College of the Environment (she started at Western in March), has spent almost every minute of her research time, from her master’s work through her doctoral thesis and post-doc work, somewhere near the Earth’s poles, from Svalbard, Greenland and the Chukchi Sea to Antarctica and the mountains of Chile, New Zealand and Nepal. Western Today recently sat down with Khan to talk about her research into what is happening to snow and ice across the world as global climate change becomes a fact of everyday life.
Western Today: Your research focuses on black carbon and how it gets deposited on snow and ice fields across the planet. What is black carbon and why it it important?
AK: Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. When the dark colored particles are deposited on the cryosphere (ecosystem encompassing frozen water), they absorb more solar radiation than the surrounding snow and ice, which reduces the amount of light that is reflected from the snow/ice surface and thereby lowering its albedo (whiteness). This in turn can lead to enhanced meltwater generation; the more snow and ice that becomes liquid during times of the year and in places where it generally didn’t used to, the more problems it can cause for the environment as a whole.
Western Today: You just finished a Fulbright working with scientists in Chile sampling up and down the length of the Andes. What was that experience like, and how does the snow in the Andes differ from the samples you have taken in places like the Himalayas or Svalbard?
AK: Great question! The snowpack in the Chilean Andes is actually quite similar to the Cascades. We spent our days ski touring along the faces of Chilean volcanoes in order to dig snow pits (where we would collect snow density, depth, and grain-size measurements), as well as collect snow samples for black carbon and trace element analyses. Although I haven’t had a chance to write this up for publication yet, the black carbon concentrations in the Andes appears to be similar in value to snow in the Gokyo Valley of Nepal and the Colorado Rocky Mountains, higher than the samples I’ve collected in remote regions of Svalbard and Antarctica, but lower than areas around coal mines in Svalbard. One of my favorite aspects of environmental science is collaborating with colleagues around the world to study similar processes across different landscapes. The Fulbright was a fantastic opportunity to strengthen collaborations with my Chilean colleagues and collect new data that will likely lend insight to the local Washington snowpack.
Western Today: Last weekend, you took your students up to Mount Baker. What did you find, and are the Cascades a good sampling ground for your research?
AK: Indeed, this weekend we had our first field trip for ESCI 497I! Although we had quite blustery cold, snowy, windy conditions, the students worked enthusiastically through the weather conditions and we managed to dig a large snow pit and have our first snow-science field lesson. The students brought back 18 snow samples from two snow profiles and this week we filtered the samples in the lab. Next week we will start analyzing them for effective black carbon (eBC). The Cascades are fantastic. I feel really lucky to now call the Pacific Northwest home and have the Cascades in my backyard for both research and recreation!
Western Today: Svalbard, an archipelago about halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole, is one of the most remote places on earth, but you have done a ton of your research there. And next spring you plan to ski across it with three other female glaciologists for a project called Climate Sentinels, sampling for black carbon along the way. What makes Svalbard such a good place for your type of research?
AK: Svalbard is one of my absolute favorite places on Earth. If you happen to watch the new BBC documentary "Our Planet" (or the older "Frozen Planet") it’s where most of the polar bear footage is from. Svalbard is a fantastic location to study science in the Arctic largely because of the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS.) I’ve been fortunate to develop strong collaborations with scientists there after first taking a course as a student at UNIS during my master’s degree program — hot tip for students, education is free in Scandinavia! Svalbard also attracts amazing people from diverse backgrounds, who share a love and passion for understanding environmental processes in the Arctic. As a result, it’s a wonderful place to develop research collaborations and friendships. Compared to other regions of the Arctic, Svalbard is "somewhat" habitable for humans because of the Gulf Stream. It can still get very cold in winter, and there are more polar bears than people, but it’s somewhat milder than the same latitude in the Canadian Arctic, for example.
Bio: A Tarheel born and bred, Khan received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing the call of the mountains, she went west to get her master’s degree and then her doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research; she then completed post-doc work at CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center. She has studied lake bottoms in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica and snow fields in the Alps of New Zealand, and is now teaching her first class at Western, “Global Environmental Change in the Cryosphere.” Her latest paper is on the impact of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station on its surrounding snow and ice fields. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.