In Ice, Alum Looks for Climate Change Clues

Monday, July 7, 2014 - 4:30pm

Each year, Katey Walter Anthony ’98 spends five months in some of the planet’s most remote and inhospitable locales: Alaska, Siberia, and the Arctic Circle.

An aquatic ecosystem ecologist, she’s searching for clues to climate change. Such fieldwork is not for the faint of heart—Anthony regularly faces the perils of walking on thin ice (she’s fallen through several times) and always carries a gun to fend off marauding polar bears and grizzlies.

Specifically, Anthony researches the effects of global warming on the Arctic’s frozen soil, or permafrost. Permafrost covers much of the Arctic, and when it thaws, lakes form, and the enormous amount of carbon that had been frozen for tens of thousands of years is released into the water. Microbes digest the carbon and convert it to methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, which is essentially burped out into the atmosphere.

“You can actually light this methane on fire—we’ve created enormous fireballs on frozen lakes from the methane coming up out of the permafrost. If permafrost thaws, it has the potential to be a significant contributor to climate warming.”

Since 2001, Anthony—who is fluent in Russian—has coordinated Russian-U.S. collaborations for the International Polar Year (IPY), a program organized through the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization to research the polar regions. In 2009, she was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke, Anthony planned to major in geology but found it wasn’t “alive” enough for her. She added some biology and ecology courses and ended up with an independent major in biogeochemistry. “I didn’t think that these disciplines individually told the complete story,” she said. “Seeing how they relate to each other and where they cross over is a better way of understanding the environment.”

After graduating magna cum laude, Anthony earned an M.Sc. from the University of California, Davis, and a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She’s now an assistant professor at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Northern Engineering and International Arctic Research Center.

Reflecting on her MHC education, Anthony is grateful for the small classes. They enabled her to develop close, mentoring relationships with her professors, who encouraged her to work independently: “They supported me and were invested in me.”