Did You Know?: Purdue in the Arctic

March 29, 2012  

Paul Shepson and Brian Stirm

Paul Shepson (left), professor of chemistry and department head, and Brian Stirm, aviation maintenance technician, will be in Barrow, Alaska, until April 2 as part of a federal project exploring the environmental effects of the Arctic's melting ice. (Photo provided)
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Four members of the Purdue community are spending a month in Barrow, Alaska, as part of a federal project exploring the environmental effects of the Arctic's melting ice.

Paul Shepson, professor of chemistry and department head, is a principal investigator for NASA's Bromine, Ozone and Mercury Experiment (BROMEX), which began March 6 and will end April 2. Also traveling from Purdue are Brian Stirm, an aviation maintenance technician; Kerri Pratt, a postdoctoral researcher; and Kyle Custard, a doctoral student. Shepson and scientists from several universities across the world are examining how the reduction in Arctic sea ice affects bromine, ozone and mercury chemical processes.

Specifically, the scientists are trying to understand the spatial characteristics of bromine in the atmosphere using measurements taken in an airplane called the Purdue Airborne Laboratory for Atmospheric Research (ALAR). The results of the research will help predict what will happen to the atmosphere once Arctic sea ice is gone, Shepson says.

For Shepson, the work in Alaska is an extension of the more than 20 years he has spent studying the Arctic and the toll climate change has taken on it.

"The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine for climate change," Shepson says. "The Arctic warms two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, and that fact is reflected in major changes in the amount and extent of sea ice coverage on the Arctic Ocean."

The rippling effects of warming in the Arctic are serious, Shepson says. For example, people native to the area depend on bowhead whales for food, but warming threatens the whales' habitat. A variety of other Arctic wildlife depends on the existence of ice, too.

Changes in the Arctic's environment aren't just limited to that area, Shepson says. Because Arctic ice helps regulate Indiana's weather patterns, the state will be in for big changes if that ice depletes.

Shepson's previous work includes studying Arctic haze, a springtime phenomenon in which ground-level ozone disappears and elemental mercury is converted into more toxic products. Shepson's research has helped determine that the effect involves halogens derived from sea salt. Through his Purdue lab, Shepson also has discovered that the photochemistry in sunlit Arctic snowpacks results in an unusual chemical composition in the atmosphere.

Shepson says he's spent much of his career studying the Arctic because he wants to be a positive force in the process of understanding and communicating about the impacts of global warming.

"Climate change so far is the biggest legacy of my generation for the planet, and I am not very happy about that," Shepson says. "To be blunt, the Earth is precious, and we are trashing it. We can do better. The idea that Purdue science, engineering, technology and the arts are making that happen makes me very happy."

For more information about the Purdue team's work on BROMEX, visit www.shepsonbromex.blogspot.com.

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