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Featuring guest Katey Walter Anthony

Katey Walter Anthony | Science, Faith & Thermokarst Lakes

Alongside Katey Walter Anthony's exciting story of her scientific journey is a story about how she has come to understand God’s place in it all.


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Ice chunk on frozen lake

Alongside Katey Walter Anthony's exciting story of her scientific journey is a story about how she has come to understand God’s place in it all.

Description

Katey Walter Anthony has done much of her research deep in the Arctic, studying the methane bubbles that are released in thawed permafrost lakes. What she has learned helps us to better understand the complexity of earth’s climate and how it might change in the future. But alongside the exciting story of her scientific journey is a story about how she has come to understand God’s place in it all.

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Transcript

Anthony: 

We live in this age where we have, so many of us could realize our dreams. And that’s a wonderful thing. But the downside of that is that we can cling to that. We can think that we and our desires are so powerful we can make them all take place. But that does not always lead to inner peace and joy, or really humility before God. So this, wanting to adapt, I found, it’s hard, It’s humbling. We have to, again, let go of what we think makes us happy, what we think we want something to look like. But it is, it can be freeing, very freeing and give a different sense of joy. 

My name is Katey Walter Anthony. And I am a research professor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf, the producer of the show and your host for this episode. Katey Walter Anthony, our guest today, has done much of her science in a place that many of us have never been and will never see, in the remote arctic regions of Alaska and Siberia. But that doesn’t mean her research is totally unrelated to our lives. In fact, what she is learning has taught us a lot about the earth’s climate and how it has and will continue to change. 

Katey is someone, I think, who understands change, who has gone through a lot of change herself. And so she knows that change is not always easy. There can sometimes be a fine line then, between accepting change and stepping in to try and steady things or even freeze them in place. Science can help us gain some of the knowledge we need to know where that line is. And Katey’s work is doing just that. 

We’ll hear about the work, about the person behind the work and talk about what it means for us and for our planet. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Hoogerwerf:  

Well, Dr. Katey Walter Anthony, welcome to the podcast.

Anthony:

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Hoogerwerf: 

So we usually start our interviews by getting to know a person a bit. And I feel like I know you a bit already after reading your book—which for the listeners is called Chasing Lakes: Love, Science, and the Secrets of the Arctic. But the listeners might not know you, and there are some things I don’t know. So let’s start with the science. It sounds like you were attracted to science from a pretty young age. What do you think it was that drew you to science and that way of thinking?

Anthony: 

From a really young age, I think it was just a love for being outdoors. The peace and serenity and freedom that came from being away, out in nature, away from responsibilities and any emotions associated with culture. And I had an unstable home in childhood, so it was just being out in the beauty of nature that first, I think, just gave me a love for the outdoors and for nature. And then as I went further, you know—also a fear, I ended up focusing on lakes. Sometimes the things that we’re afraid of are actually the things we’re most deeply interested in. So I’d be swimming, and then my feet would touch plants growing underwater, and that always really scared me a lot. But then my master’s degree focused on studying those plants. So then as I went through my college education—I was at a liberal arts college, Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts, it’s a women’s college—I took all kinds of classes not knowing for sure what I wanted to do in the future. And it became very clear that science was the right place for me because I, first of all, was interested in truth. And second of all, I liked black and white. I liked the objective of putting out hypotheses and then falsifying them and really trying to understand the way the world works in a systematic way. And the social sciences at that time seemed less objective to me. So I felt comfortable in science and it was a great way to explore and get to know the natural world more.

Hoogerwerf: 

So was college the first place where you kind of turned the interest in the outdoors into the specifically scientific method of asking questions?

Anthony: 

Well, that’s a great question. It’s the place where I had to identify myself because you have to declare a major. I think growing up—in the book I talked about hiking with my dad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and just seeing these huge granite boulders that were split in half, it looked like they’d been cut by a machete. And I was just curious, what could cause that? Why would a rock split that way? And then he explained to me how when water drips into the cracks and freezes, it expands, and just the power of that force of water turning into ice to split rocks, that was interesting. So I think I probably always was leaning towards ‘how do things work’ but I was not raised in an environment where I was surrounded by scientists or had opportunities for internships. So I was not trained as a scientist until I started getting my formal education and went to graduate school.

Hoogerwerf:  

Yeah. Okay, so this is a podcast about science and faith. So before we get back to the science, which we will do, let’s hear a little bit about the faith side, the religious background of your childhood sounds like it was a little bit complicated, different messages from different family members.  Can you talk a little bit about that? Maybe your earliest impressions of religious life?

Anthony: 

Sure. Well, I was born in Texas and my dad was serving in the army. We were there for six months, and then moved to Germany and back to Nevada and to Oregon. My parents had me at the age of 21, and neither of them had a college education. So we ended up moving, I think, more than 10 times in the first 10 years of my life. My mother was raised in a Christian home and my dad was not, but he became a Christian during the Jesus movement in the late 60s/70s. And he became very passionate about his faith. I mean, he preached on the streets. I think he went to jail twice in Reno for speaking out on the corner, out of a place. But then at one point, we moved up to Eugene, Oregon and joined, kind of a commune, people were building an orphanage. And it was some families that collected dandelions and kind of lived off the land and didn’t believe in any holidays, just read the Bible and lived a simple farm life. And we eventually were asked to leave because my parents wanted to celebrate holidays. And in leaving, my dad started a degree at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. And there, through his education and thinking and formative years, I suppose, himself in his early 20s, he fell away from faith, and decided that Jesus was a false prophet, and did not fulfill his promises. I was four or five, so early on I was raised learning how to read with the Bible. And then at that young age, I saw my dad fall away and my mom then became uncertain, and I got very mixed messages, even contradictory messages from both parents. And you look up to your parents. So when my dad called Christianity a fairytale, that sunk in. Yet I had been taught in the earliest ages that it was true. So I think that conflict really gave rise to a lot of deep seated doubts that then stuck with me as I was growing up,

Hoogerwerf: 

So in the prologue to your book, you have this line where you say, “as a scientist who wasn’t convinced 20 years ago that climate change was immediately observable and as a Christian, who 20 years ago wasn’t sure you believed in God, today, you believe in both.” Let’s stick with the past here just a little bit longer. You kind of hinted at some of this, but moving from that early childhood into your early formative years, what happened to bring you into this season where you start questioning your own faith, but also maybe still have some skepticism about the science?

Anthony:  

Well, I think at the age I was questioning my faith I wasn’t a trained scientist. I was drawn to the natural world but not a scientist. So my parents married and divorced each other twice, changed states all over the place. At the age of 13, I was strong willed and arguing with my mother. My dad was in a different state. It became clear that I had a feeling that to do well in the world and learn to survive, I needed to be on my own. So she let me move out when I was 13.  I lived with another family. They were Christian but at that point, I was kind of on my own and didn’t have anyone of strong faith on a daily basis in any way mentoring me. So I started to be raised by the world. I went to Russia when I was 16. That was right after the fall of the Soviet Union. I did take a Bible over with me. My grandpa handed it to me on the way out, when I was getting on the airplane. When I got there, I didn’t know the language. That post Soviet world was so foreign, that I read my Bible a lot. And that year I also ended up meeting some Christian Russians that stuck out to me as very different from the rest of the Russians. So that year was important in terms of reading my Bible and having the example of those Russians that seemed like they had a certain light in them. But I came back to the States a year later, was on my own in Portland, Oregon, and just didn’t know if it was true or not. I always had that voice of my father echoing in my ear that it’s a fairy tale and that I wasn’t going to please him, it seemed like, if I was going to believe in God. So in some ways, that was my first experiment. It wasn’t a true scientific—I don’t know if it was a true scientific experiment—but I decided that if I don’t know, I’m going to live like there is no God. And so that was the way I went off to college, was deciding I don’t know and I’m going to try to live just like there is no God, and did that for a long time. I did not find that that led to any peace. I ended up in a lot of very hurtful relationships, hurt myself, hurt other people. I tried to think that the world without God was a better place. But yeah, I just didn’t have peace. And it was a process of coming back to faith and being willing to accept the Bible as true even though it seemed like it contradicted so many other ideas, especially at a liberal women’s college. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Yes. So bringing your story a little bit even more forward then—and I’ll say you describe this in much more detail in the book and so I’m going to skip some of that for time sake, but eventually you find your way back to the church and Christianity partly through relationship with your husband and your family. But I got the impression that there was always some sort of draw back to spiritual for you throughout that time, am I right about that?

Anthony:  

There was, when my research started picking up and taking off I was in Siberia again, alone. And I ran into trouble in my experiments, and I was alone and didn’t have anyone to easily solve problems for me. And at one time, I just felt at the end of my wit’s and I prayed, even though I was not in the habit of doing that. And I would say something pretty close to a miracle happened. And I still wasn’t ready to believe in God. But that certainly kind of woke me up a little bit too. But yes, there was a draw, my mom would over the years—I didn’t talk to her very often, but when I did, she knew scripture. And she would say certain Bible verses, and I would give her the impression that I didn’t want to hear it. But God’s Word is true and it’s alive, and it cut into me. So I think you’re right, that there was always in me still something that was hungry and receptive for God’s word. The church didn’t appeal to me. The churches I visited, I didn’t agree with their politics. I didn’t identify with the people that went there. I did go to a church in Siberia. And that was different, they had different politics I suppose. But it was God’s word, really, that ended up speaking truth.

Hoogerwerf:

So I want to get to Russia in just a minute. But one more point on this train of thought. So I’m curious where you are now and if there’s any kind of tensions now with your scientific work? How are you received by your colleagues in the scientific community? Any response to the book so far?

Anthony: 

Well, I did mail it out to a number of colleagues, and was kind of nervous because I don’t know that I had a reputation as being a Christian. So this was a way of kind of coming out of the closet that way. I have generally gotten—the people that have come with big warm hugs and said, “I loved your book,” have been Christian people. Some colleagues have written back and said, “wow, this is really interesting,” and not a negative response, but also not an exhilarated response. Some of the people I work closely with that are not Christians, have told me that they’ve really appreciated it and even felt some of my own struggles and questions that I raised in the book they could identify with, too.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah, that’s great. Well, let’s talk a little bit about lakes. I want to start by saying I share your love for lakes. I grew up in Michigan, just about a quarter mile from Lake Michigan and spent childhood in and around lakes. We could hear the waves from our front door. So reading, I could definitely relate to that draw to water. It gets pretty cold in Michigan, but not, I think, as cold as Siberia. I don’t know much about thermokarst lakes, which is what you’ve been studying here for the past while and specifically methane emissions from the bubbles in these lakes. So let’s break this down a little bit and maybe first just say what a thermokarst Lake is.

Anthony:  

So when you go north into the Arctic, the atmospheric temperature is so cold that the ground is frozen year round. In the summer, the surface soil thaws, and in the winter, it refreezes. But in the summer, if you were to take a sharp stick or a rod and poke it into the ground, you’d go down a couple feet, and then it would hit something hard and you think it’s a rock but actually it’s frozen soil. So that permanently frozen ground we call permafrost and it is both frozen soil but in a lot of areas it has massive wedges of ice, great big blocks of ice and they have sort of a regular distribution in the ground

Hoogerwerf:  

Is that just groundwater that wasn’t frozen at some period in history and froze?

Anthony:  

A lot of the ice in the places where I worked formed during the last ice age. We still, even in the present climate, are in some places forming permafrost. It tends to form during cooler climates and what it is is that in the winter when the air and ground are really cold, the ground cracks and then in the spring and summer when the snow melts and rain precipitation goes into the ground it goes into those cracks and it freezes. And so you get these cracks that start getting layers and layers of ice that form year after year and those are called ice wedges. They’re somewhat regularly distributed in the ground. So they end up, if you have 1000s of years, you can have these massive wedges of ice and in some places in Siberia and Alaska where I work, those ice wedges can go up to 80 meters into the ground, 160 feet. So that’s kind of the extreme of them. But in a lot of places, they easily go three or four meters into the ground. So imagine massive blocks of ice that are going four meters into the ground, all over the place. Well, if one of those ice wedges starts to melt, you get a little puddle. And that puddle absorbs the sunlight and it heats up and it causes more melting. And so that ice wedge just slowly melts, melts, melts until you have a pond. And eventually that pond will thaw more of the ground around it and melt more of the ice wedges and the pond gets deeper. And over time it gets wider. So the ice is melting. The land surface is subsiding. The sinkholes are filling with water. And the part that was frozen soil just falls into the bottom of the lake, and it becomes food for microbes. And in Russian, the Russians call that process of the lake getting bigger, the Russians say that it’s ‘eating’ the soil around it. And I really love that picture. Because if we imagine that the lake is a gigantic gut, where you have microbes that can perform decomposition, just like in the rumen of a cow. Those microbes are digesting the soil organic matter, the remains of plants and animals that died in the past and that organic carbon was frozen in soil for 1000s of years. Now it’s falling out in the bottom of the lake and getting digested. And in that process underwater, those microbes are generating methane and carbon dioxide, which are greenhouse gasses.

Hoogerwerf:  

And they bubble up to the surface and go into the air.

Anthony: 

Yeah, methane does. Carbon dioxide stays in solution. And methane is less soluble, so it comes out as bubbles. And it’s the dominant way that methane comes out of these lakes. So my job, my PhD work was to understand how much of this methane gas bubbling from permafrost thaw is happening in Siberian lakes.

Hoogerwerf:  

Yeah, so this is in Chersky?

Anthony:  

This is in Chersky. It was a gulag territory. Just full of prison camps during the Soviet period. So a lot of times on my way there I would tell Russians that I was going to the Kalyma, the Kalyma River region, and they were horrified. Why would you want to go there?

Hoogerwerf:  

Yeah, so then explain a little bit about the—this was your PhD project, is that right, with Sergey?

Anthony: 

Yep. This was my PhD project. I went over to the far northeast part of Russia and a Russian scientist named Sergey Zimov had built a little science station. So he had a laboratory and there were four houses, two of them were occupied by Russian families, his family and another Russian family. One of the houses was empty, from a different Russian family that couldn’t tolerate working with Sergey any longer. And then the fourth house was open for me and then other visiting scientists that would come.

Hoogerwerf:  

Okay, and then explain the project that kind of launched the book.

Anthony:

Sure, yeah. So when I arrived, I was new to this landscape and I was told that my job was to quantify these methane bubbles. So to do that, I built bubble traps, which ended up being these plastic skirts, and I put a metal ring around the bottom, so it’s kind of like a hoop skirt dress. But at the top of that skirt funnel, I put an inverted plastic bottle. So I found plastic beer bottles or drinking water bottles that people had discarded along the roads around Chersky. I turned those bottles upside down, taped them onto this plastic skirt, this funnel, and then lowered them into the water in the lakes hoping that they would capture any bubbles that were coming up. And over time I made hundreds of these and put them out in the lakes and then I rowed out around in my rowboat every day, pulling them up to see if I caught any bubbles. Later, someone helped me they said ‘I like this. It’s kind of like trapping animals.’ But instead I was trying to trap bubbles. And my first two years was just failure after failure, and I built more traps and continued to fail.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, so one of the aspects I found really compelling in this story is just the persistence and the creativity it took to do a lot of this. Like you said you’re creating these pieces of scientific equipment out of recycled materials from junk piles. We’ve been working on some stories on the podcast about the nature of science. And I think this really exemplifies how scientific discovery doesn’t take the normal route. Can you talk a little bit more about the points on that journey that made you doubt the whole process?

Anthony:  

Well, when I was out rowing around in my boat, I could see that the lake was bubbling and anyone who has stood next to a lake on a calm day probably has seen some bubbles coming up. So I knew that the bubbles existed. I just wasn’t sure why they weren’t going into my traps. So I thought I’d build more. And that didn’t solve it and then the part that seemed like there was a hand of God that played a role was that at one point my traps started getting attacked by muskrats. They were chewing holes in them by biting the bottles, destroying them faster than I could make them. So I actually stopped, almost stopped sleeping entirely, stayed up all night building more traps, putting them out the next day, day after day of that, and the muskrats were winning. So ultimately, what happened is that I stuck—a lot of scientists in the Arctic, at least historically, I think now people are recognizing that winter is important, so more people are studying the Arctic in winter. But historically, people would do their fieldwork in the summer and then go back to their universities and laboratories and work indoors in the winter. Well, in my second year I stayed in Siberia longer until the lakes froze. And I went out onto the ice with Sergey one morning. It hadn’t snowed yet, so just a thin layer of ice covered the lake. And he said, “be careful the ice will tell you if it’s gonna break.” It was cracking with every step that I took. But as soon as I overcame my fears, I realized, I had an epiphany of what exactly was going on. I could see these white, beautiful white patches of bubbles in the ice. And they were kinda like if you look up in the night sky and look at stars, there’s patches of stars, but most of the sky is black. And that’s how most of the lake was black, clear black ice. And I realized with all my traps out there, my chances of capturing a star or capturing a bubble point were low. But there were plenty of those bubbling points around. They just didn’t take up very much space and they were scattered. That was also the same day Sergey showed me this, the first time he gave me an ice spear. He was a smoker so he had his matches in his pocket. He told me, ‘Katya spear into that ice bubble.’ And then he lit a match. He said, ‘be careful Katya, the first time I ever did this, I burned my whole vegetation.’ He was talking about his facial hair. Because Methane is a natural gas, and it’s flammable. So when we poked into that bubble, the methane came rushing out. And when you light that bubble on fire, a big fire ball goes up. And it can definitely envelop you, if you point the spear in the wrong direction.

Hoogerwerf: 

So what were the conclusions from that research? What were the implications kind of more widely?

Anthony: 

Well, really important ones. The training I had had up until that point, as a scientist, said always randomize your experiments. And so I thought putting my bubble traps out randomly in the lake, I was going to capture nature. Well, I captured the background of nature, but I missed all those stars, I miss all those points of bubbling, those hotspot points. So I realized instead, I needed to actually count how many bubbles were in the lake and I needed to put my bubble traps over those bubbling points. And understand how many bubbling points there were per square meter, so that I could more accurately come up with an estimate of methane bubbling. So I did that. I redesigned my experiments. And I ended up finding that these Siberian lakes were emitting five times more methane than people had thought before. I collected some of those bubbles into little glass bottles and they had a stopper on top. So I was holding a glass bottle in my hand with a stopper and inside were methane bubbles. And we always talk about, with carbon dioxide and methane, we talk about these gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere that cause climate warming. Well, in my bottle, I had some milligrams of carbon in the form of methane. But it just felt like a bottle and it was clear and methane is odorless and it’s transparent. But it wasn’t until I took that bottle back to the laboratory in the US—and methane is a carbon with four hydrogens—so when I stripped off the four hydrogens In the laboratory, I was left with the very carbon atoms that had been on the methane molecules in the lake, in the bubbles. And I could hold those carbon atoms in my hand because they were graphite. If you take the hydrogens off, that carbon just takes the form of graphite. And so that was really neat, that was kind of seeing is believing. I believed there were methane bubbles in my bottle and they had some mass, but I couldn’t really detect it with my senses. But then when I underwent that laboratory method procedure of taking the hydrogens off, and being left with pure carbon, I was then holding and could see in my hand, a little piece of graphite. 

But you can radiocarbon date that graphite and so I did that. And what I saw was that the age of the carbon on the methane gas, these greenhouse gas molecules, the age of the carbon was the same age as the mammoths and the grasses that the mammoths had been eating during the ice age. So it showed that there was this tremendous amount of bubbling coming out of the lakes. And the bubbling was coming from the thawing of this ice age frozen ecosystem that was thawing out in the lake bottoms and getting converted into methane and CO2 and entering the atmosphere. So if you take old carbon, and you put it in the atmosphere, it’s another version of human fossil fuel emissions. By adding greenhouse gasses, it traps incoming solar radiation, and in this case, could cause more warming and more thaw of permafrost and more methane gas release. So it was a positive feedback cycle.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Listeners! On this podcast we hear a lot of stories of young people who consider leaving the church because of the tensions they find between science and faith. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why we developed Integrate, a teaching resource, designed for classroom teachers and home educators. It seeks to equip the next generation of Christian leaders to be faithful, informed, and gracious voices engaging with the hard questions raised by science. To learn more just go to biologos dot org slash integrate. Alright, back to the conversation.

Interview Part Two

Hoogerwerf:  

So methane has always felt like it takes a backseat to carbon when people talk about climate change. And there’s good reasons for that, right? There’s just less of it. But it’s super potent. Why don’t we hear as much about methane, as we do about carbon?

Anthony:  

As we do about carbon dioxide? 

Hoogerwerf:

Carbon dioxide, right.

Anthony: 

Well, I think you’re right, there’s just so much more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and emitted by people. Every molecule of methane is, on a 100 year timescale, is equivalent to 30 molecules of carbon dioxide. So for every one methane you get thirty carbon dioxide. On a 20 year time cycle, so shorter time period, methane has an even stronger global warming potential. It’s more like equivalent to 80 carbon dioxides. So maybe it’s because I study methane that I actually hear and think more about methane than carbon dioxide. But you’re right in the big picture, that CO2 is just so much more abundant, and emitted more by people. However, I think people do care about methane. It comes from our landfills, all the places where we’re depositing garbage. If those environments go anoxic and without oxygen, methane gets generated by microbes in landfills. Then all the ruminant animal husbandry is another what we call human source of methane. The fossil fuel industry itself is producing natural gas, there’s lots of leaks, that there’s methane released from that. And then we have natural sources, which are wetlands, all around the globe. The lakes are important. Actually termites. Termites are an important source. So we have a lot of both natural and human sources. And if we can reduce our emissions of those, it goes a long way in terms of mitigating climate change.

Hoogerwerf:  

So for the thermokarst lakes, is the methane released from this ancient carbon, is that something that’s happening because the climate is warming? Or is that something that’s kind of happening at a continuous rate in Earth’s history?

Anthony:  

That is a really good question. So when I started studying these lakes back in 2000, so 22 years ago, all the projects I was part of and even grants I got funded were all under the umbrella of ‘climate warming causes permafrost to thaw, which should release more of this methane.’ But I didn’t have enough experience yet to know, and I don’t think anybody even knew scientifically, was the formation of these lakes accelerating or is it something that’s always gone on and it’s just natural? So we started traveling all over Siberia and figuring out the birthdates of these lakes. So I would travel along the rivers and the rivers would often cut through the lakes and cross section and drain them. I could sample the sediments of these ancient lake profiles, radiocarbon date the sediments and figure out the birthday of the lakes. And then people had done some dating of thermokarst lakes in other parts of Canada and Alaska. I compiled as many birthdays of lakes as I could find, and plotted them. And what that dataset showed is that when the earth first came out of the Ice Age, during the last glaciation, that more of these thermokarst lakes formed then. It was a faster rate of formation and actually released more methane then, then what we were seeing now, or what we were seeing 20 years ago. And that was because when the earth first really shifted through that abrupt climate change from a cold ice age into the more moderate interglacial period, the landscape was just ready for this, there was lots of ice in the ground, a ton of carbon. And when these lakes first formed, they got huge. Over time those lakes will drain. When a lake forms, it actually collapses the ground. So instead of this ice rich uniform level of landscape full of carbon, over time, these lakes make a bunch of pock marks all over the ground. So later lakes that formed couldn’t get as big. And then the earth got cooler. So the rate of lake formation slowed down. During my career, as I said, I was always writing these grants and fellowships to get funding under the argument that these lakes were a contributor to climate warming, and really important. But did I actually see them getting bigger? Did I actually see them accelerating? I was not convinced of that. But that has changed in the last six to eight years.

The lakes that I studied for a long time, and just thought, well, that kind of looks pretty normal, no longer look normal. These little ponds have just gotten, turned into huge lakes before my very eyes, and a lot more have formed. When we’ve put them against climate datasets, we see that around Fairbanks, Alaska where I live, just a 40% increase in Lake area since the 1980s, associated with warming that started then. So I think we are at a threshold, a really interesting time, with the opportunity to see whether these models are right or wrong. And so far there, in terms of what I study, they look like they might be right, that climate warming is creating more of these lakes and an acceleration of them, which means an acceleration of that methane release.

Hoogerwerf:

And I feel like one of the tricky parts, especially for communicating the science of climate change is differentiating between natural climate cycles and human induced change. But it’s really not even that simple, right? There can be something that is a natural change that starts to increase or decrease and cause feedback. And it’s just really complicated to communicate. So with these lakes, are we starting to get a sense of what this means for the future of our climate? And how much of a role specifically the lakes play?

Anthony:

Yeah. And I like how you started that out. When we figured out what the birth dates were of all these lakes back through time, we saw the lot formed right as the Earth emerged from the Ice Age, and then the formation of the lakes slowed down. But another thing that we saw was that the lakes filled up with peat over time, even when there was water. And then when the lakes drained, they accumulated peat. So thick beds of peat built up, and that peat was soaking up carbon out of the atmosphere. So the significance of the timing of these lakes is that when they first formed, they emit greenhouse gasses, a lot of them and they emit this old carbon, so they cause a positive feedback to climate warming. But over time, as a lake gets older, and then drains, it switches roles, and it takes up carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and it causes climate cooling. So we’re trying to put all of that together. And what we learned is that today, the lakes all together have a net cooling effect. But if we’re at this threshold of widespread permafrost thaw—and then what would happen is, as all that peat formed, it would refreeze, it would become permafrost again, and become isolated from the atmosphere. But now, as permafrost is thawing and accelerating, we no longer have that natural protection of lacking carbon away from the atmosphere by freezing it. Now the freezer door is opening and it will all be subject to microbial decomposition. 

So, you know, we have observations of how much of this has gone on in the last 60 years because that’s where our satellite records go back to. But then for the future, we have only models. So the model projections are that with climate warming this century—there’s the business as usual scenario, RCP 8.5, and then there’s a more mitigating scenario, RCP 4.5— both of those scenarios are enough to open the freezer door and subject vast amounts of permafrost carbon to decomposition and methane production. The business as usual thaws faster than the RCP 4.5. But both will open the freezer door. And there’s a limited amount of carbon in the freezer. So if you open the freezer door, the amount of greenhouse gas you can generate is not terribly variable. Certainly the conditions, whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic, will govern if it comes out of the ground as methane or CO2. So that’s an important thing that we need to get a better handle on. Looking at the future, permafrost today contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. So if we flashed thawed all of that permafrost and released it all to the atmosphere, it would triple current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. But it doesn’t flash freeze, and it doesn’t all get released at once, and a large amount comes out as methane. So we really have to understand the controls over that. But even saying all of that, this natural methane source and carbon dioxide source from permafrost only comes up to about 10% of what the projected human fossil fuel emissions are. So it’s dwarfed by it. But it’s a headwind against efforts to mitigate.

Hoogerwerf:

Right. So there’s a couple of sentences in the epilogue for your book that I want to talk about because I think it brings up some really interesting conversation, gets some of the nuances of our climate situation and what we can do about it. So I’m gonna read a quote here. You say, “As I look at the changes taking place around us now in the Arctic, [you list a bunch of changes, we’ve probably all heard] there’s a temptation to join the cry of some people to take a stand to prevent these changes on Earth, there’s a tendency for all of us to want to keep things the way we remember them. There’s a deep desire to keep the Arctic and all of its beauty and splendor that indigenous knowledge and Western science have revealed to us during the past 150 years the same. But the Arctic changed to become how it is today and change will continue to happen. We’re well on our way to an Arctic that will be at least seven degrees warmer by the end of this century. We can hope and strive to slow this warming, but change itself is unpreventable. Change has always happened.” So I think this is really interesting. You’re not here saying here that we should just not worry about it, that there’s no problem, just more change. Just continue doing what you’re doing, right?

Anthony:  

No, I’m not saying that. But I think we should have a—I went into ecology as a graduate student in the field of restoration ecology. What are we going to restore—now with all these much more years of experience behind me—what are we going to restore it to? I love pristine natural systems. Again, conservation, I love that. But we also live on the planet and we have to be realistic. And so I think we need to ask ourselves, at what point are we trying to preserve everything. Change actually does always happen, it always has. So the real question is, how can we live with ourselves in a way that we’re taking care of our home, and not causing these changes to happen faster than people and animals can adapt to them. So that means a lot of different things. But I think it can hurt us to look for really dramatic ways to just stop everything and keep something, pin it to a certain point in time and state of being, because that’s just not natural. But really, we need to understand how the system works. So I think we should put a ton of energy into our relationship with the place where we live. We can take care of things better if we understand it, if we know it, if we care about it and love it. So by spending time outdoors and being able to observe for yourself so you don’t have to hear somebody else tell you that this is how you take care of it. 

I guess. I was thinking today on my run that a lot of times if we wanted to improve our own quality of life, which you could say that’s a selfish aspiration, I think ultimately, that also ends up improving the world and the environment that we’re living in. So if we can do a little less of the driving around and eating out and being consumers that generate a lot of garbage and instead slow down, and prioritize, having more meals at home with family members, all of that is going to be better for our well being as people, and also better for the environment. So I think slowing down and investing more in getting to know the people around us and taking care of them, and also spending a lot of time outdoors to see and observe and understand how things work. And that way, whether consciously or unconsciously, the decisions that we make are going to value our natural world more. Which should result in taking better care of it.

Hoogerwerf: 

So there are things we can change. And I think some of those things we’ll know by doing what you say, changing our own lifestyle choices. There are other things you can change, like, through geoengineering. Have you thought about how much we have to change to be able to keep things slow enough for us to be able to adapt? 

Anthony:  

Yeah, well, even with health, I’m definitely more on the side of prevention instead of taking medicines to solve problems that we could have prevented. So I would prefer the natural way of preventing these problems instead of the geoengineering approach to try and solve them. Because we don’t understand the system well enough and time and again we bring in these invasive species that cause great problems, and then we’re stuck with not so great solutions to get rid of them. And we end up generating more problems than what we started out with. So yeah, I guess. I’m open to thinking about the geo-engineering ideas. And you know, one of them—I’m involved with talking to people now about can we promote methane oxidation in the lakes? Is there a way to promote microbes that would be consuming and eating the methane and converting it into carbon dioxide? So, you know, that’s something worth considering. But I would want to see the experiments done to make sure that there are not going to be side effects that we didn’t anticipate that actually end up harming the system worse.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah. And I really resonate with the idea that that change is going to happen. And if we don’t think about adaptation, we’re just going to kind of waste our time trying to change things that we can’t. I’m curious if you have any examples of what adaptation looks like from your own life that will help us to— you say somewhere in your book, that “we can adapt and look for ways to help make the changes positive.”

Anthony:  

Yeah, and in my book—I would need to think a little bit about the practical, tangible changes, which I would need a few minutes to think about. In the book the way that that takes place is that I married a Midwestern farmer, which took me out of the Arctic, and the academic environment that I loved, the adventure of doing science all around in extreme environments. And I kind of got stuck on this Midwestern farm. And that led to a lot of depression and it was difficult to take. So I, over time, had to decide was I going to let that ruin me, take away my joy, take away the joy of my husband, and then children that came into the scene? Or was I going to adapt to this change? And that to do so required letting go of my pride, letting go of the idea that I am only happy if my world looks a certain way. And that whole journey ended up being a spiritual one. But I found that it is possible. I needed to change the lenses through which I was looking at the world around me and look for the opportunities. You know, we live in an age— grew u,p my motto, I think in first grade was ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’ We live in this age where so many of us could realize our dreams. And that’s a wonderful thing. But the downside of it is that we can cling to that. We can think that we and our desires are so powerful we can make them all take place. But that does not always lead to inner peace and joy, or really, humility before God. So this learning to adapt, I found it’s hard. It’s humbling to have to, again, let go of what we think makes us happy, what we think we want something to look like. But it can be freeing, very freeing, and give a different sense of joy. So I think in the same way—just taking me back to permafrost and in Alaska, do I love it that the road and the ski trails and trails I hike on that used to be dry, now you can’t get across them without hip waders on? They are these great big sinkholes filling in with mud and permafrost thaw. Trees are collapsing into them. You know changes are taking place and we have to learn to adapt to them.

Hoogerwerf:  

What do you say to those who will be worried about defeatism that might come from that idea? And  I think the answer is adaptation is not defeatism. 

Anthony:  

Well, I mean, I think one of the lakes I work at has a house on it. And the man who lives there, built that house, he loves it. It’s a little cabin. Well, over time, the ice melted beneath it and the walls ripped apart, and it became unsafe. So his mother died and he had to spend his only inheritance to build a new house, further away from the lake, which is constantly eating and growing and taking in everything it can get. So that was a big and emotionally difficult for him. And he was trying to get insurance coverage because of climate change taking his house. Now years have passed, and he has a beautiful new home. So you know, I think it’s a better energy more energy efficient home than what he started out with. So I think yeah, all of us in our lives, change is taking place, even things not related to climate. And it’s hard for us sometimes to roll with those changes. But if we can allow ourselves to be flexible, and look at the bright side, there’s a lot of brightness to be had.

Hoogerwerf:  

Yeah, that’s good. All right, coming up to the end of our time here. What are you working on now?

Anthony:  

Well, it’s a little bit of a secret. I am looking at methane associated with permafrost thaw coming out of some places where we never thought to look before. And if we talk again in a month or a couple of months, I might have that paper ready. 

Hoogerwerf:  

We’ll keep our eyes out for that. We’ve been ending our interviews by asking our guests what books they’ve been reading. So I want to ask you that, maybe specifically, if there’s anything in the realm of this conversation about climate and environment. But if there’s anything you’re reading that you’d want to tell us about, we’d love to hear it.

Anthony:  

Well, I just finished reading—and I don’t remember the author’s name, because I don’t pay a lot of attention to that, as much as I should—I just finished reading the biography of Catherine the Great, which was fascinating. I had started it before the war started. So it was really interesting to read that book with the changes that are taking place now between Russia and Ukraine. And the history of Potemkin, one of Catherine’s lovers, who had gone down and fought the Turks for the Ukraine region, and then developed it for Russia. So yeah, that’s been very interesting. And I just started a new biography on William Wilberforce. We homeschool our children. So between that and doing science, trying to keep up with my university work and being a good mother, I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like to. A lot of it is actually reading to them. And we’ve just read The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson. Which was great. A very old English style of writing and are just now finishing Robin Hood

Hoogerwerf:  

Wow. Well, thank you, Katey. This has been really enjoyable, and thanks for telling your story and Chasing Lakes. I recommend the book and hope we can talk again sometime

Anthony: 

Thank you Colin

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Katey Walter Anthony

Katey Walter Anthony

Katey Walter Anthony PhD is a professor of aquatic ecology, biogeochemistry, and permafrost at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her research focuses on methane emissions from Arctic lakes and the degradation of permafrost and its feedbacks to global climate processes through the carbon cycle. She and her work have been featured in National GeographicWashington Post60 Minutes, Vice, The Guardian, the New York Times newsletter, NewsweekNature Magazine, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ice on Fire.