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Melting glacial ice presents new scientific concerns for Alaska’s water quality

Published: Sep. 10, 2020 at 4:20 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Srijan Aggarwal, an associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and Mines, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant of nearly one million dollars for The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) from the foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic program. His research under this award will look at what impacts our changing climate could have on the water quality in Alaska Native communities.

As the climate warms, environmental changes can intensify water contamination by releasing all manner of entombed frozen materials such as microorganisms, nutrients, ancient organic carbon, and metals through thawing permafrost and melting glaciers. We spoke with Professor Aggarwal to learn what his research seeks to discover about the impact this could have on Alaskan water supplies and water treatment.

“As all this frozen water which is frozen for centuries and millennia thaws, and it releases, it’s going to release some of these things that have just been entombed for a long time. And what might that mean for water treatment systems which get their water from, say, a glacial fed lake? Or a glacial fed river? What does that mean? People are even wondering what kind of microbes or even viruses that might be buried that may, you know, wake up the zombies for example? Some people might call it like that, maybe it’s not as dramatic. But if your in-flowing water is a little bit more turbid, has more microbes, has more pollutants, then what does it mean for the water treatment facility engineering wise?”

Aggarwal went on to say, “Water treatment operators are noticing that they have to tweak their systems because the organic loading is higher than they have witnessed in the past years. So things like that, we’re very interested in understanding how this might shape the water treatment of tomorrow”

With the potential for exciting discoveries on the horizon, Aggarwal and his team plan to begin taking glacial samples for analysis this October. The project is a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and tribal members.

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