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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Skier Turned Researcher Brings Life Experience into the Lab

By Anna Fiorentino
February 2014 • Thayer By Degrees: PhD

PhD student Carolyn Stwertka ‘17 developed a deep understanding of snow and ice through years of experience from multiple vantage points: taking materials science classes at Dartmouth, digging avalanche pits in Utah while earning an MS in atmospheric sciences, and hitting the slopes.

Carolyn Stwertka
PhD student Carolyn Stwertka ‘17

“Since I have been skiing practically my entire life, I have a visceral grasp on the nature of snow—what snow looks like and how it changes over time. Now I’m learning the science behind it all,” says Stwertka who conducts her research at the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) approximately two miles from Thayer School.

“I hope to help understand the nuances of how sunlight absorption feedbacks are contributing to accelerated climate change in the Arctic,” she says. “From what I’ve been told, the strongest researchers are those who can physically understand what a system looks like from having been there and also sit down at a computer and crunch through building a model because they understand what is physically possible. I strive to be this type of researcher.”

Under the direction of two Dartmouth engineering graduates turned adjunct assistant professors—Chris Polashenski 07, Th’07, ’11 and Zoe Courville Th’02, 08—Stwertka is going out in the field to measure the albedo (the reflecting power of a surface) feedback mechanisms that control the enhanced melting of ice caps and sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Her first research trip, part of the multi-institutional Sunlight Absorption on the Greenland ice sheet Experiment (SAGE), will be a five-week, 1700km snowmobile traverse in Greenland. Her mission is to gain an understanding of what controls the spatial and temporal variability of the albedo on the ice sheet.

“We’re interested in how snow absorbs and reflects sunlight over time in Greenland,” says Stwertka. “This is closely controlled by how the snow grains themselves metamorphose over time, a process I first encountered as a backcountry skier learning about the processes controlling avalanches.”

Her second five-week excursion will be aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter HEALY going from Dutch Harbor, Alaska through the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea.

Icebreaker Healy
The Coast Guard Cutter HEALY is the nation's newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. Photo courtesy of US Coast Guard.

“We are funded to study light availability underneath the sea ice and how it controls primary productivity in the ocean,” says Stwertka, who began her PhD last fall. “In the Chukchi Sea we will be studying albedo feedbacks on sea ice using a portable spectrometer that I was awarded with the Goetz Fellowship.”

Stwertka and the team will also use an unmanned aerial vehicle to map the surface characteristics of the sea ice in order to validate algorithms used to retrieve similar metrics from satellite imagery of the arctic.

Tags: climate change, energy, environment, extra-curricular, research, students

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