Associate Professor Ruth Sofield is preparing to study the potential impact of pollutants from snowmobiles on mountain snowpacks with a $4,000 grant she was awarded in January.
Sofield received the grant from the Winter Wildlands Alliance and will focus her studies on Mount Baker and in Wyoming.
She will create a report on the potential pollutant levels in the snow for the alliance — a national non-profit organization with a dual mission of conservation and recreation.
The goal of Sofield’s research is to see if there is any contamination accumulating in the snow paths from the snowmobiles, said Western sophomore Rachel Combs, who is working with Sofield.
The study will yield valuable information regarding human and environmental interaction, Sofield said. The project is a pilot study, she said.
A pilot study takes a small number of samples to determine whether there is anything to actually study and if it is worth studying further, Sofield said.
There is no reliable data in existence for pollutants found in snow-pack, said Mark Menlove, executive director for the alliance.
The samples Sofield will be analyzing were gathered more than a year ago in February 2011, when Sofield received $2,000 from the alliance to collect the snow samples. The $4,000 she received this January is specifically for her analysis and report on the collected samples.
The team is using the grant money in part to properly prepare themselves and their equipment for the analysis period, when they will only have a 48-hour window to run their samples, Wood said.
She will be spending the next few weeks analyzing the samples.
Western senior David Wood will also be conducting research with Sofield.
Wood has spent the last week calibrating the tools the team will be using, Sofield said.
“We have to know that our analytical techniques are good before we start working with the samples,” she said.
Wood said the team’s research will provide invaluable insight into the types and levels of pollutants left behind by snowmobiles in the areas under study.
Since the snow samples are all taken from snow mobile paths, the team will be looking for gasoline pollutants, he said.
During spring snow melt, the chemicals left by the snowmobiles in the snow can have a potentially negative impact on aquatic systems, the extent of which depends on the concentration of residual chemicals, as well as how much snow is melting at a given point, he said.
The team’s report, in addition to influencing potential future studies, may be used as an important resource for future decision making processes and analysis of national forest areas, Menlove said.
There is no reliable data in existence for pollutants found in snow-pack, he said.
The grant gives Western the opportunity to perform innovative research in an area that is fairly understudied.
Mount Baker and Togwotee Pass were both chosen by the alliance due to their contributions to their surrounding areas, Menlove said. They were also chosen because of the time each location has between pure snowpack and a contaminated snowpack, he said.
Sofield said the team is unsure what they will find in regards to the toxicity of the pollutants, but within two months the team will have the final report for the alliance. The report will be publicly available at that point, she said.
The team’s findings are going to be presented at the 2012 Pacific Northwest Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Conference in April, Wood said.
According to Menlove, the alliance is pleased with Sofield’s progress so far.
“We’re looking forward to having the final product and having that be a part of [our] decision making process in the future,” Menlove said.