Photo: Katey Walter Anthony

Photograph by Peter Anthony

By Catharine Livingston

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By the third day of drifting in the storm-tossed Arctic Ocean, with no engine and no real prospects of rescue, a question came to Katey Walter Anthony: “What’s a data point really worth?”

Others might have had other things on their minds, but to Walter Anthony, data is everything. As a biogeochemist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, she studies methane. The greenhouse gas is 25 times more potent than CO2 and is being rapidly released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost. But this source of methane is not factored into most climate change models, something that does not sit well with Walter Anthony.

This August she mounted an expedition to Siberia to seek out and measure beds of thawing permafrost. Her team followed Russia’s Kolyma River north through the sprawling Sakha region to the Arctic Ocean. They scaled 65-foot permafrost bluffs and hacked into the frozen ground to collect carbon from lakes that existed thousands of years ago. They uncovered preserved woolly mammoth tusks and rhino bones. But then the storm came, their ship’s engine broke, and their anchor disappeared. “As far as we knew, we were floating to Greenland,” says Walter Anthony.

They were fine, ultimately, rescued by the Russian Ministry of Extreme Situations, but their data could prove devastating. Already, Walter Anthony has shown that Siberian thaw lakes could release ten times the amount of methane that is now in our atmosphere, potentially accelerating global warming to drastic effect. What else she’ll find is just a matter of time, hard work, and hopefully a better boat.

Originally published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition of National Geographic Adventure