Emma Kahle’s ’10 Life in Antarctica
Throughout her time at Seattle Academy, alumna Emma Kahle ’10 was challenged to make connections between seemingly disparate issues or concepts, such as connecting literature to physics or philosophy to science. Now in her current field, she finds herself drawing from this unique skill set to develop innovative ideas as she works to learn more about climate change. Currently, Emma is a glaciologist stationed in Antarctica as a member of the South Pole Fuels Department. Her department is responsible for fueling aircraft and managing a pipeline system that feeds the majority of the station’s buildings with fuel, ensuring that all operations are efficiently optimized and problem-free.
Emma completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia University, where she double majored in Earth Science and Astrophysics. Then she went on to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Washington to study climate science using Antarctic ice cores. Emma first went to the South Pole as a part of a graduate school research project. She was part of a drill team that spent about three months each season living on top of 2,800 meters of ice and drilling the core to learn about climate change. Emma and the team drilled 1,751 meters down into the ice, reaching a maximum age of about 54,000 years (the middle of the last ice age). They shipped the ice back to the United States, where labs around the country made different measurements on the ice, analyzing everything from gas bubbles trapped in the ice to the water molecules that make up the ice itself. The focus of her work was to analyze the water molecules to reconstruct a record of how temperature has changed in the past. This type of temperature record is important for helping to validate computer models of Earth’s climate system and for improving our understanding of the sensitivity of temperature changes over long timescales.
The South Pole station is an incredible place where you are living and working together in a close-knit community. There are about 80 people on station between people cooking food, people maintaining the station, and people studying astrophysics with the collection of giant telescopes here. It turns out the South Pole is one of the best places on Earth for observing the evidence of the Big Bang! - Emma Kahle ’10, Glaciologist
When she’s not in Antarctica, Emma spends her summers working for the National Park Service of the Sierra Nevada where she studies trees in high-elevation forests. This work is part of a long-term monitoring project to study the whitebark pine tree, a keystone species in this particular mountain ecosystem. The trees are impacted by climate change, as well as the mountain pine beetle and an invasive fungus. This monitoring project tracks the health of these trees and helps inform management decisions for the parks.
Once her time in Antarctica wraps up, Emma and her partner plan to return to Washington state where they intend to start a regenerative farm, which is a type of farm that aids in reversing climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. To do this, they plan to maximize the diversity of animals and plants to foster healthy soil by creating a silvopasture, a landscape covered by grasses and sparse trees where they will graze various animals. Beyond the farming itself, they also want the farm to be an educational center where students and the general public can come to learn first-hand about these concepts. Emma and her partner are truly passionate about helping people develop a closer relationship with their food by knowing a little bit about where it comes from and the impact, positive or negative, that the production and transportation of that food have on the environment.