Tiny Bubbles From the Permafrost: An Interview with Ecologist Katey Walter Anthony

Thermokarst lake in Alaska.

Katey Walter Anthony is an Aquatic Ecosystem Ecologist and a professor at the Water and Environmental Research Center (WERC), University of Alaska Fairbanks.  Anthony’s unusual story includes living in Russia as a teenager just after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and returning later to Siberian gulag country as a scientist to study the melting permafrost and its releases of methane into the atmosphere. The results of her work are alarming.

Her memoir, Chasing Lakes, is not only an account of a scientific expedition of discovery and understanding of the deeper nature of ancient lakes, but a revelation of new found faith in herself and humanity.  The urgency of her scientific findings is augmented with the belief that the release from selfishness can still bring us hope and reason for joie de vivre.

The following interview by Zoom took place on November 1, 2022.


John Hawkins:  In the Prologue of your new book, Chasing Lakes: Love, Science, and the Secrets of the Arctic, you describe your suspicions of a pond out back of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  Can you say why the tiny bubbles there won’t make us happy?

Katey Walter Thomas: It’s a very ironic question.  Those little bubbles are one of the things that makes me most happy. My most joyous moments in life, not the most, but among the top five are peering down into water and watching these little bubbles come up to me. They are fascinating. Where are they coming from in the sediments? How deep down? They’re beautiful. So I have some of my most joyous moments observing these bubbles.

Now, if we step back and ask what are in the bubbles, then the implications of that might not be so joyous. And what’s in the bubbles is methane gas. And methane is a greenhouse gas about 30 times stronger than carbon dioxide on a 100 year time frame. So as these bubbles come up through the water and then they often will float at the lake surface for a minute and then pop, they’re releasing almost pure methane. It’s often 80, 90% methane into the atmosphere. And there as a greenhouse gas, it can trap incoming solar radiation and lead to warming of the planet. So if there are more and more of these bubbles with climate change, then it’s an additional source of warming. And that really is, I’d say, the part of the research that gets funded.

A lot of my research was done in Russia, so I was working with Russians. If a person were to look at a map of the Arctic or look at Google Earth, you would see that, unlike a lot of the lower 48 [states], in certain parts of Europe… lakes are just everywhere. There are millions of lakes. They are a dominant feature on the landscape. And the reason the thermokarst lakes are there in Siberia and Alaska is that the ice, the ground is frozen and it has blocks of ice in it. And so when that ice melts, the ground surface sinks and those sinkholes fill with water. And then it starts as a small pond, a small pond surrounded by very icy soils. And because the pond has more heat in it, that heat and the heat comes from the sun, sun and summer, that heat causes the ice around the pond to melt. And so the pond gets bigger and bigger. And the Russian word for that is that the pond is eating the ground around it. And I think that that’s a wonderful metaphor, because the part that wasn’t ice, in that soil are the remains of dead plants and animals, including mammoths and things that lived during the last ice age. And so when all that dead plant and animal material thaws out, it’s like it’s falling into the lakes. Gut ruminant animals today are a source of methane, and in their gut, live microbes that are digesting organic matter and generating methane, the same things happening in the bottom of the lake. There are microbes down there chewing on this old dead plant and animal remains, and it’s making the methane gas. So it’s a metaphor, but it’s also very accurate.

Hawkins:  In Chasing Lakes, you write: “I moved away from my family at the age of thirteen. In 1992, at age sixteen, I went to live on my own for a year in Russia in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.”  Can you say more about this intriguing experience?

Thomas:  Well, yeah, looking back, it was a fascinating time to be there. I had come from what I thought was a poor, unstable family. We were on food stamps. We moved a lot and we lived in suburbia and I wasn’t [ever] satisfied. I was [always] looking for more. And so this opportunity came to be an exchange student in Russia, and even though I thought I was poor, when I got to Russia, I saw what poor was, especially at that time; the entire economy had collapsed. Everything was broken. I went through the town [of Krasnodar], and the size of the buildings, the size of the parks looked [like they had been] very grand and beautiful at one time, but nobody had kept them up. And so it was decrepit and broken. And it made you wonder, what did this look like in its heyday? It must have been beautiful, but it had deteriorated. And the people, according to the standards of living I had come from, had one pair of clothes that they wore in their house and one pair that they wore outside. The girls I played basketball with at the university were wearing their one and only pair of little high heeled sandals. That’s all they had. That’s what they played basketball in. The lines that you had to wait in to get anything — flour, sugar. There were not a lot of options of what you could buy. And you went around searching from one little shop or kiosk to the next to find things empty. And then there was the instability of the ruble; it was a challenging time for them. And as a 16 year old in a completely unfamiliar world, I didn’t speak the language. I was scared to death. Just trying to make sense of it all. They were in survival mode.

Hawkins:  You write, “Coming to terms with my tripartite role of wife, mother, and scientist, I’ve had to face an entirely new kind of challenge: the dark inner workings of my own heart.” Say more about that tripartite role and the darkness.

Thomas: Well, I left home at the age of 13. So I myself was learning to survive and didn’t have money.  But in that path of survival, I was very self-serving. Everything I did was for myself and for my future. And [then I got married and] when you get married, if that marriage is going to work — now there’s two people. So there’s a part of compromise, and dying to yourself that has to happen, and then [you] bring little children into the picture that depend on you for life. I found that very natural. I wanted to feed them and take care of their physical needs. But there’s more than that needs to take place. I was finding I could not focus just on myself. And what I love to do is science. I love to travel the world and explore extreme environments in the Arctic. And you can’t do that with little kids, with little babies. I did some, but not to the same degree.

Hawkins: So, you’re living in a remote area with your children and doing home-schooling. It’s very time consuming, but was there something you found gratifying about home-schooling, rather than sending your boys off to school someplace?

Thomas: Absolutely.  I love home-schooling. It’s challenging and it’s another part of the inner workings of the heart. I am looking at a mirror constantly at my impatience. I’m not a gentle person, so it’s very revealing and difficult on my own character. During our Halloween yesterday, we got our home-school done and [then] we took blankets out into the sunshine in the yard and read scary stories and made cupcakes. And you know, if you’re rushing home from public school, it’s hard to have those relaxing moments. And when you are home-schooled, you have a lot more freedom. Your child cannot get away with not being pushed to what they’re capable of. So you get to realize the potential of your children in a different way. You get to have a relationship with them in a more relaxed environment. They get to learn from people of all walks and ages of life rather than only just their peers in a certain cohort.

Thomas:  You know, the thing that we spend the most time on in our home school is cello. [When the kids] were younger, we would spend up to 3 hours a day on the cello to learn “Twinkle, Twinkle” for a year. And what goes on there? You’re learning an instrument, but that instrument is really the means to character development and getting habits. I’m not letting my son get away with not doing his best. So we do the basics: math — and I like to read to them a lot of literature. They didn’t learn to read until they were really ready. But now they love to read and write. They’re excellent at it. So we try to just take a more a natural approach with what fits their needs and interest, but at the same time make sure that certain elements are in there. [And] a lot of discipline. The cello is a place of discipline [and] they haven’t always loved me [for the time I’ve made them put in to practicing]. And there’s been even the possibility that [such practicing] would hurt our relationship with what I hold them to — that accountability. But over time, they’ve come to love it because anything you really invest in, you’ve come to love.

Hawkins:  You are a Christian scientist in a relativist age. Fascinating in itself. Would you care to explain this phenomenon and how it works for you?

Thomas: Sure. When I was in college and having to decide, taking all kinds of classes at a liberal arts college, it became really clear to me that science was where I belonged —because of relativism. I wanted to seek and believe in universal truth. And science is where you can have a profession, spend your time to understanding and defining and testing natural laws, and describing natural phenomenon. And there’s black and white; if you have a scientific claim, it has to be falsifiable. It’s not a matter of opinion. If it’s something scientifically true, then it’s not [just] true for me [but] not true for you. It’s not relative. So that that aspect of science, being able to write a lab report, here’s what I did, here’s what I found, here’s why the hypothesis I had put forward was not supported. It’s very objective, and that appealed to me.

So I guess there’s not a contradiction of being a person of faith and being a scientist. So much of the science in the natural laws that we understand today came through — most of them — men, but some women of faith. So for a long time, where we are today, scientifically [speaking], is because people believed in God. And it’s my approach; I love the earth. It’s a beautiful place to be. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad and sad things that happen in it as well. But I want to understand it. The reason I’m interested in those bubbles is they’re natural and they’re interesting.

Thomas:  So again, pursuing that truth there. And then but I was raised in the public school system and then went to a very liberal college. So you do get the message that you can’t be a Christian and a scientist. And that that went into me as well. And so I did kind of an experiment. Plus, my dad wasn’t for many years, he wasn’t and still is not a Christian, and put a lot of doubt in my mind and criticism of even the possibility of being a Christian. So that influenced me. So I did an experiment and decided if I don’t know if God is real, I’m going to live like He’s not. And really adopted that mindset and lifestyle. So in my own life experiment, did that lead to inner peace? Did it lead to peace in relationships with other people? No, it did not. Not inside and not outside. It led to a lot of hurt. And so, then I would say God didn’t let me go. So as a person of faith today, I have inner peace. What the Bible tells me is right and wrong and relationships guides how I have relationships with people. Or at least it convicts me of what I need to be doing better, and it makes a big difference.

Katey Walter Anthony. Photo: Dr. M. Sanjayan.

Hawkins: Creationism versus Evolution. How do you handle a dichotomy like that?

Thomas: Well, I work the science. I do radiocarbon dating. So it’s an old Earth perspective. I believe God created the Earth. And that was never a question that I’ve had to really answer in my science so much because I work in the present day situation of climate change. And yes, there is that context of the Ice Age and I do paleo work, I guess I should say. So everything is scientifically done in an old Earth context.  And I did some reading of creation science over the years, not a lot, and I would say a lot of times it didn’t seem like good science. That said, I married into a family of PhDs, very intelligent people who believe in a young Earth, and now that we teach our children, home-school them, this question will come up, and I will have to address it in a way that I didn’t always have to confront in my own life. It was it’s been easy to work in an older context and say, Well, God knows the truth and I don’t. Maybe someday when I’m dead, I will. But my husband’s been helping me to find some good science that relates to a younger Earth. And he’s opened my mind to some good, thought-provoking arguments. And so, like anything that I study, I’d like more time for it, but I want to remain open-minded to see where the scientific evidence actually points.

Hawkins: Here’s an excellent passage from Chasing Lakes:

Now I would be able to quantify the methane concentration in my bubble samples—and this was the start of a slow-burn scientific epiphany. I’d known that bubbles from other lakes being studied around the world had clocked in at around 20 to 60 percent methane. Samples I had collected in the human-made ponds and lakes not affected by thermokarst were within this same range. But as I started to run samples from bubble traps that had been placed along the margins of thermokarst lakes, places where permafrost was most rapidly thawing, I saw the concentrations of methane shoot up. One sample was 80 percent, another 85 percent. I couldn’t believe my eyes—until I found samples with 90 percent and even 95 percent! These very high concentrations indicated that thermokarst methane bubbles were special.

Could you say more about the epiphany and why these methane bubbles were special?

Thomas: Yeah. So when I landed in Siberia as a graduate student, my job was to quantify or measure, figure out how much methane was coming out of these lakes. And so I did that. In Siberia, I only had whatever scientific equipment I had been able to bring over in bags, or send it in advance, which wasn’t a lot. So I had some little three way valves and some glue. But I had to basically look around and comb the roadsides for things [I could use]. This was Stalin’s Gulag region, his prison camp. And when the Soviet Union fell apart, people who were in Siberia left things behind. And so I went and looked through their dumps and found all kinds of old metal and bricks. And then I got some wire spools and then greenhouse plastic, and I basically constructed funnels. They had a wire ring on the bottom and then a plastic sheeting coming up. And then I took beer bottles, or water bottles, that people had left littered on the road and rinsed them out and inverted them. So I had an upside down bottle with a skirt on it. And then I put a little tube with a valve at the top. And then this hole, that was my bubble trap, and I put it under water.

Thomas: So the whole thing was full of water, the bottle, the skirt and everything. And then when bubbles would come up out of the bottom of the lake, they would go into the skirt and they’d get funneled up into that inverted plastic bottle. And over time the bubbles would accumulate in there and displace the water. So then I’d end up with a plastic water bottle full of bubbles, and then I could open the valve and release the gas and take a sample of it. So what I was seeing is that I had many failed attempts and frustrations. But in my traps, this gas; I needed to know its content. It could have just been air, it could have been nitrogen. Those things wouldn’t burn. But if they had methane in them, a natural gas, it’s flammable. And so I could take a sample of it and bring it back to the field lab in Siberia and inject it into a gas chromatograph.

Thomas: And there was a stream of nitrogen which would carry my little pulse of gas across a flame. And if the gas had methane in it, when it reached that flame, it would make the flame jump higher. And the degree of that burning got recorded on a piece of paper. And I could relate it to an actual methane concentration. So the lab, the manual I had for the instrument was in Japanese, and I was not a real technical person, but I realized that this method of measuring methane has to work, if we’re going to understand what was in those bubbles.

And what I started to see was that in these lakes, where permafrost was thawing, and decomposing mammoth remains of the grasses they were eating, the methane concentration was exceptionally high. And then when I took those bubbles and radiocarbon-dated them, I saw that the age of the methane, the age of the carbon on the methane was the same as the age of the mammoths and the grasses that they’d been eating in the ice age. So it was there thawing out that was creating [the methane]. That was a really I ended up taking samples back to the United States and working in the lab for the radiocarbon-dating.

Hawkins:  How is living in a cold clime more telling than in the lower 48?

Thomas: That’s an interesting question. I guess I would start by saying that anything can be telling, if we open our eyes to observe. And one thing that all of us can do, no matter where we live, whether it’s the tropics or the Arctic, or the temperate zone of the lower 48, is Look and Observe. Write things down, measure things, establish a baseline so that we can see when things are changing because it happens everywhere. We just all need to see it.

But the Arctic is a place where the change is happening faster. The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, and a large part of that and it’s very noticeable, visually noticeable. And a large part of that is because the Arctic has been for a long time covered in ice and snow. So we have sea ice, we have snow on the tundra. And when all that white surface, when the sunlight hits it, it gets reflected back out. That’s called high albedo. But if the sea ice melts and you take a white ice covered ocean and replace it with a dark blue ocean surface, or you melt the snow in the tundra, instead of a white reflective time, you have a brown tundra. Those darker surfaces will absorb the incoming solar radiation instead of reflecting it.

Thomas: And that can cause that atmosphere and ground to heat up.

And so I’ve done this now for 23 years and for many years, again, I got my grants funded by saying climate change is going to cause permafrost to thaw. But did I honestly actually see it? I saw some, but nothing that was alarming to me definitely [until] the last ten years, possibly the last 6 to 7 years I’ve seen dramatic changes. So, we have these models for the future and we always wonder how accurate are they. But it’s very interesting to live at a time where some of those models are starting to come true before your very eyes. And places that I’ve driven in my car are now surrounded by water. It’s like you’re just moats of water everywhere, because the ground ice is melting. Roads that used to be flat are now bumpy and humpy because this ground ice is melting. So it does seem like the changes are taking place and they’re taking place faster in the Arctic. But anyone can see it, if people will observe.

Hawkins: Living in Russia, you describe a scene in which you are on a stalled tram and when you get off there is a decapitated corpse near the tracks and you rush home to a carer. You write:

When I told her what I’d just seen, Irina Mihailovna shook her head, and the sadness that was almost always present in her eyes grew more intense. “Uzhas (Horror)! Bozhe moi (My god)! ” she exclaimed. I didn’t think for a minute that she or any of the other hundreds of women who called on their god actually believed in any god. For too many decades the Soviet Union had been their god, and like all idols, it had finally crumbled. The people of Russia were left empty. Their souls were as barren as the shelves in the stores.

You have known desolation and loneliness and have found comfort in your God. Spiritually, what was your response to the plight of the atheist Russians you lived among?

Thomas: Well, for a good part of that year those were the Russians that I lived among. And my response:  I was just watching. I mean, I felt the sadness around and the hopelessness that the people had. And so, I was looking for something that wouldn’t feel so dark and hopeless to me. So I tried basketball and swimming. I was looking everywhere.  I even went to the Orthodox Church and nowhere did I find any feeling of hope. And then, one day, I was running along the river and I saw this baptism ceremony, which I described in my book, and I got to know those people. And they were different. They were just as poor as everyone else. They also had missing and gold teeth, but they had smiles on their faces. Their faces were glowing. They had joy. They were not talking about what they were lacking. They were talking about what they had. And that was a light. And that drew me. And there was just such a contrast between light and dark, between the believers , and those that didn’t have a God to believe in, the God to believe in.

Hawkins: You write of lakes as if they were creatures, alive and kicking, rather than repositories or vessels of biochemistry alone. I love this passage:

The [thermokarst] lake is productive and successful in its work, generating vast amounts of greenhouse gas in a selfish feedback cycle that causes more warming, more permafrost thawing, and more lake growth. Driven by self-perpetuation, the process continues blindly until the lake breeches a topographic gradient and catastrophically drains—in essence, having eaten its way to its own death. But there is an alternate fate for a self-seeking lake. Its margin waistline can become so thick with thawed soil that it can no longer effectively melt the ice around it. In this mature state of fatness, the lake lounges on the landscape, digesting, burping, and venting the dwindling resources in its gut until it runs out of food. Then its character changes. Instead of hurting the environment around it (by self-perpetuating global warming), the lake assumes a new role. Nutrients in the lake support the growth of plants and other organisms, and as these flourish in the lake’s embrace, they soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and build carbon-sequestering peat on the lake bottom. This positive role of helping the environment around them by absorbing greenhouse gasses and accumulating peat can continue for a very long time. The longer it continues, the better its impact on the world.

Where does this symbiosis come from?

Thomas: A lot of people, me, but not everyone, can start out pretty selfish, self-focused, self-centered and, ultimately, hurting other people around us, and the environment around us, or our own health. [So] these lakes, as they are, just grow every year, melting more ice, eating more of that thawing permafrost, belting out more methane, which causes warming and more thaw. Sometimes they would catastrophically drain and [their] expanding their gluttony, would lead to their own death. But if they survived that and didn’t get killed, [then] a lake,when it runs out of food, runs out of the ability to cause more damage, it actually changes roles, and it lets plants grow in it that take up carbon dioxide. So the lake starts cooling the planet, and then the longer it lives, the more it cools.

And so, what I saw as I matured from a young adult, who was very self-centered and career-driven, was that I could continue that way, but it was going to lead to the death of joy in me.

Hawkins: COP27 is coming up. How would you present your research on little bubbles and why they are important?

Thomas: Yeah, I’m not going to be there, but if I were, then I think there are several  important thing to know. Permafrost has been around for a long time. It holds twice as much carbon as there is in our atmosphere. So if we were to flash thaw the permafrost and release all that carbon, it would triple carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But, in a lot of places, it creates methane [too]. And methane is a stronger greenhouse gas. So how much methane can come out? What is the trajectory we’re on? We are currently following the business as usual scenario, where we are still releasing, as a society, enough greenhouse gas that, if the climate models are right, is going to lead to substantial warming and enough warming this century to cause a tremendous amount of permafrost thaw, which then releases more greenhouse gas, and it adds to the other greenhouse gases that are there.

Thomas: Point number two is that the amount of greenhouse gas that can come [from natural thawing] is still pretty small compared to human anthropogenic emissions. The magnitude of what will come out [naturally] is only up to about 10% of what anthropogenic emissions are projected to be. So it’s working against our efforts to cool climate change.

Hawkins: Obviously, we should be looking to slow it down, if for no other reason than to buy time to figure out how to deal with it further.  People talk about taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Thomas:I’m always on the side of prevention, because we still don’t understand well enough how the whole system works. And so we create these problems and then we try to use science to solve them. But, a lot of times, we’re perpetuating the problems, and inventing new ones.

Hawkins: What do you tell your two sons about their future and the planet’s?

Thomas: Well, a lot of that goes back to our cello lessons, [to building] their character. So I’m trying to teach them to work hard, to really be conscientious about what’s right, and to do what’s right, [and] to observe. So, during recess, it’s going outside on the farm. So they have good old fashioned boredom to entertain themselves. But what that leads to is observation. They’re just naturally outside observing things, which I think is a very useful skill. Knowledge is power; the more we understand, the better, wiser decisions we can make to take care of [the planet]. So I really want them to be good observers [to] understand how things work; to be confident in what’s right and wrong, to pursue truth and let that guide them. Even if it goes against what the rest of society says is popular. But to know what is right, and to know what is true, and to follow that — a lot of those principles are in the Bible. Taking care of our planet is something God wants us to do. And then ultimately, what I also teach them is that we’re all going to die. So what happens? What happens to you when you do?

Hawkins: Do you have a politics — green or liberal or conservative ?

Thomas: We don’t get too involved in politics. I mean, as a scientist, it’s part of my job to relate my science to policy. So I do have that responsibility. But these days science gets used so much in politics, and you can take this study or that study to prove your opposing points. And, to me, that’s not good science. So I like to strip things back to the raw, what is true and pursue that.

Hawkins: A good example of what you’re talking about is the Covid-19 origin story, which got totally politicized. And to this day, we don’t really know the origins because people politicized it. And good science would have said, let’s just go where the evidence takes us.

Thomas: And that kind of stuff even happens in climate change. If I write a paper, and a lot of them are talking about this positive feedback to global warming, I get a tremendous media response. People want to make movies about it and do interviews. But I’ve also written papers about how these lakes can cool the climate. And overall, with all the millions of lakes out there, most of them are these old lakes that are having a good impact. They’re causing climate cooling. The phone doesn’t rain for those stories. So there is also politics in climate change.

Hawkins: Chasing Lakes.  Is it a metaphor for inquiry.

Thomas: I think so, yeah. You got to chase something. I’d say for me, it’s chasing lakes, but someone else [can chase] something else. But I would say chase truth, pursue understanding.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.