Scientist Of The Month - May

For the start of the summer, we present you the GEM scientist of the month May 2020: Melissa J. Murphy. She recently moved from the UK to Copenhagen, to pursue a postdoc position at Copenhagen University. As a geochemist at CENPERM, she researches how weathering processes affect CO2 fluxes in the Arctic. Despite not being a GEM member herself, we chose to feature Mel to share both her experiences of working dedicatedly in the GEM stations and with the existing long-term monitoring.

How did you get interested in the Arctic?

Growing up in Australia I never imagined that I would one day work in the Arctic. It was not until I moved to the UK for my first postdoc that I was fortunate to do fieldwork in the Arctic, sampling the Lena River in Siberia during the spring flood. From there, I have been fascinated with how the presence of permafrost affects water-rock interactions and weathering processes.


What is your current research about?

My research looks at how weathering processes (the chemical and physical break down of rocks) are affected by the presence of glaciers and permafrost in Arctic river catchments. To do this, I use major, trace element and metal isotope geochemistry. Rapidly thawing permafrost and melting glaciers in the Arctic affect the export of weathering-derived solutes, nutrients and sediments to the coastal oceans. This has a knock-on effect for downstream aquatic environments and the communities that rely on these resources.


Despite the global situation, what are your field season plans for this season?

I am hoping to go to Arktisk Station, Disko Island (Qeqertarsuaq), West Greenland later this summer, but my fieldwork plans are still up in the air due to Covid-19, so fingers crossed. The plan is to sample the rivers draining the basaltic rocks in the region. The eponymous Røde elv, (Red River) runs red due to the presence of finely suspended iron oxide minerals, formed from weathering of the basalts. Røde elv is quite different to other Greenlandic rivers, and I plan to compare the weathering regime of rivers spanning a range of climatological (high/low to high Arctic), glaciological and geocryological (permafrost) regimes.


How did you come in contact with GEM and what do you enjoy most about it?

I have been lucky to visit Zackenberg for the past three years. The area surrounding the research station is mountainous and glaciated, with pristine rivers draining a range of bedrock lithologies and topographies across a relatively small area. GEM has nearly 25 years of continuous climate, hydrological and permafrost thermal regime data from this site. This historic data is essential to help us understand the effects of climate change in this region.


What is the biggest challenge in working in the Arctic for you?

Working in the Arctic has its many challenges: remoteness, access, weather, wildlife… However, as a geochemist – the greatest challenge is getting funding not only to get into the field, but also to pay for the highly specialised geochemical and isotopic analysis.


If you could name one single biggest leap of technology in your field of research in the recent years, which one would it be?

From a technology point of view, advances in mass spectrometry have allowed geochemists to measure really low level, high precision isotopic compositions in a wide range of sample matrices such as water, rocks, gases etc. This has opened up the use of isotope geochemistry in a range of earth science applications. However, from a knowledge viewpoint, I think the biggest advance in my field has been the recognition that, despite the assumption that low temperatures inhibit weathering processes, we actually see high degrees of physical erosion (e.g., finely grained glacial rock flour and sediment from freeze/thaw processes in permafrost), as well as enhanced chemical weathering promoted by organic acids in active layer soils in polar environments.


Being very active on social media yourself, how do you spread the science and which forms of outreach you use most?

I think it is really important to present and explain the findings of my research and the implications of climate warming in the Arctic not only to the scientific community, but also to non-scientific audiences. I have given presentations and workshops targeted towards students and the general public at schools, universities and science outreach events. These are always lots of fun and I love getting asked questions about what I do. In the past I have tried to blog about my Arctic adventures, but I have actually found twitter to be the best platform to reach a broad and diverse audience (note: feel free to follow Mel: @mel_murphy01)


Do you have any advice to the new generation of younger scientists in the making or the kids striking for climate?

My advice to the younger generation is to not lose hope. It can sometimes feel overwhelming with the constant news about the negative impacts of climate change, especially in the Arctic – but it is important to channel this into motivation to find solutions, and not feel climate despair.


Last but not least, can you recall your most memorable fieldwork experience?

One day in the field, I nearly stumbled upon a polar bear. Luckily, I spotted it from on top of the (one and only) bridge that crosses the main Zackenberg River before I hiked that way. I was actually filming the river to document the water/sediment/snow conditions when I spotted it, and I have a fantastic video of me pointing at the bear and saying, ‘Holy s*%@! Is that a polar bear?!’. From the safety of the bridge, myself and a few other scientists working in the area had the unbelievable chance to watch the bear from only 200 m away. We didn’t have to fire a flare or use the rifle, as it just sat down on a snow patch and watched us curiously for a few minutes before it walked away in the direction it came from. It was a very special moment.

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