Reflections of a Young Climate Scientist: An interview with Katy Sparrow
I met Katy as a freshman in college right around the time we were both attending our first Power Shift in 2009. After Power Shift, we returned to school and worked side by side in our environmental organization, UNCW Environmental Concerns Organization, in which Katy served as our Vice President. I wanted to talk with Katy particularly because she's in a unique position as an environmentalist that emerged out of the youth climate movement and now, a climate scientist. Katy is currently working on researching methane flux in the Alaskan Arctic.The conversation below is about Katy's field work, the results she's finding, and how she feels about them.
Vanessa: Can you tell me about the program you're in and your field of study?
Katy: I’m in the oceanography department at Texas A & M and I’m in the Chemical Oceanography Ph.D program. In the fall I’ll be transitioning to the Earth Environmental Science department at University of Rochester. I’m researching methane, and the methane feedback loop in the Alaskan Arctic. So I’m looking at quantifying methane in its release from permafrost and my quest is for hard data...how much is fluxing out of the water, because that’s really a big unknown right now. We know that there’s a huge store of methane in the Arctic, and we’re studying it in Alaska specifically. The reason we’re interested in the Arctic is because of Arctic Amplification, which is how, even compared to the Antarctic, the Arctic is warming faster, so it’s an area that’s very prone to climate change...My labgroup is using a novel technique to take a continuous survey of methane flux in this area.
V: What’s the technique?
K: A Cavity Ring-Down Spectrometer. It’s a $100,000 instrument we use on a tiny boat. It’s never been taken outside of a lab, and we’re now using it for the first time as a field survey technique. It uses lasers to detect how much methane gas is in the air compared to the water. We get high-resolution data, as the CRDS takes a measurement every 6 seconds.
V: And you’ve been doing that for how long?
K: Since last summer before I even started taking classes I went and did field work. I just jumped right into fieldwork, which was really tough. Now I’m going back for my second trip, and I’m excited to not be a rookie.
V: Can you tell me more about what your findings have been?
K: We’ve seen hot spots where there are spikes of methane. In Siberia, they’ve found significant methane fluxes from the sea and they were from decomposing methane clathrates. Methane is kind of locked up in a cage of ice, so the Arctic is thawing, and as it does these potent sources of methane that are locked up underground or on the sea floor are being released. It’s one thing to have it released in the water, and it’s another to have it reach the atmosphere. It has to pass through the entire water column to reach the sea surface. Most of the gas dissolves into the water as it’s migrating upwards, so only a small amount reaches the sea surface. For example, in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which was obviously in deep water, so much methane was released...and because it was in deep water, almost none of it reached the atmosphere to add to the atmospheric concentration of methane at all. As it dissolved in the water, a giant bloom of methane eating bacteria consumed the methane. They didn’t realize that would happen. They were expecting to find huge amounts of methane in the air. In the arctic, its very shallow. Because there’s so much vulnerable methane in these areas, and the Arctic is so shallow, it doesn’t have to travel through so much water to be released...The data we’re gathering is really going to add to our knowledge of what’s happening.
V: How prevalent do you think it is that science is skewed by dirty money?
K: I have not really heard anything about climate scientists being bought off--someone going along doing science and then being paid off to stop publishing data. None of the scientists I have met are concerned with money, they are concerned about the planet. The climate deniers that are producing their own false statistics and studies is totally evil, besmirching good, hard-data science and doing the world such a disservice. The actions of false science-spewing institutions such as Koch industries are completely reprehensible, and they are the reason that the American people are confused and unprepared to face the reality that "global change is upon us" to quote Orrin and Keith Pilkey, authors of "Global Climate Change: A Primer" (2011), a book which is not only very readable, but captivating. I would love for the whole world to read it, so we could literally and figuratively be on the same page about all the many daunting issues that we find ourselves confronted as a result of our activities. Some people, including some that I work with, may call me naïve, but I believe that if we are collectively more aware of what is happening to our world, we would mobilize and harness the ingenuity of our species for the good of all our people. That is why I am in science, why I live my life the way I do.
V: How does your work affect your lifestyle?
K: My lifestyle helps keep me in a good place, and without it, I think I would fall apart rather quickly. I find that my mind becomes a rather thorny place and I am ineffective at my work, which requires a great deal of self-confidence, if I do not take good care of myself and connect myself to my surroundings. I love bicycling so that I can observe nature and feel the wind in my hair, I eat plant-based and from community gardens and farmers markets so that I appreciate where my food comes from, and I meditate to help calm my mind that holds more information than it knows what to do with. Working towards contributing to something I care so much about at my very core emboldens me to live out loud, but also makes me vulnerable to feeling like I'm not contributing enough, fast enough. Riding against the flow of the fast-paced, fossil fueled world with my lifestyle choices helps me feel like I am doing something real right now. I am healthier for it and I tread lighter on the planet.
V: And how does your work affect your outlook on the future?
K: Knowing that scientists have known what they have about greenhouse gases for so many decades, it makes me upset that we continue to make our situation more grave day by day. It would be easy to just crumple up in a heap on the floor from feeling overwhelmed and anxious about what is to come in the coming years. Sharp changes in lifestyle are due for all of us here in the Western world...the earnest work of good scientists, activists, and creative thinkers of all trades will help us transition into the future in the best possible way. Who knows, maybe it will be the greatest thing we have ever done.
Thanks, Katy! It's reassuring to know that there are concientious young scientists working on these issues. Good luck on your second round in the field!
Photo credit: Katy Sparrow