WWU’s Alia Khan Receives $1.2 million CAREER Grant from the NSF to Continue Research in the Antarctic and the Cascades

Western Washington University Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Alia Khan has been awarded a five-year, $1.2 million CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to continue ongoing international collaborations with scientists from the Chilean Antarctic Program to evaluate the role of temperature, light absorbing particles, snow-algae growth, and their impacts on snow and ice melt in the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Khan will also incorporate undergraduate and graduate students from Western in snow and glaciological research methods on Mt. Baker in the nearby Cascade mountains.

“The West Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet,” said Khan. “It is important to understand all the drivers and feedback processes of snow and ice melt in this region.”

Khan said receiving the CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation – sought after by researchers still in the early phases of their career to allow them to continue research the NSF deems promising – is a huge honor.

“I am excited for the project to begin early next year and am looking forward to getting Western students involved in the research and incorporating those results in my classes. The support of the Environmental Science department and Western has been important as I pursue this work,” she said.

Khan’s CAREER grant is the first to be awarded to a member of Western’s Environmental Science Department and is the largest CAREER grant in the university’s history.

According to David Patrick, Western’s vice provost for Research, the new grant marks an important milestone for Khan.

“The CAREER Program is the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award supporting early-career faculty. These grants are awarded in a nationwide competition to an elite group of scientists and engineers judged by their peers to have potential to serve as academic role models in research and education,” Patrick said. “It’s quite a mark of distinction and an indication of the strength of STEM research and education at Western.”

Jean Melious, dean of Western’s Huxley College of the Environment, said the grant reflects the importance of the research that Khan and her students and colleagues are doing.

“Dr. Khan’s research is exciting because it incorporates both global and local scales. Her work presents sophisticated problems that will train and inspire our students,” said Melious. “This grant will provide extraordinary opportunities to our students, as well as supporting a terrific researcher whose work makes a difference.”

Much of Khan’s research focuses on how the regions of the planet covered with snow and ice are melting faster as a result of climate change, as well as the role of light absorbing particles, such as black carbon, dust and biological constituents like snow algae on that feedback loop.

Her work presents sophisticated problems that will train and inspire our students.

“Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass from wildfires. Long-range atmospheric transport can allow soot particles produced locally in the Cascades to be deposited on snow and ice across the globe, such as in the Arctic,” she said. “When the dark-colored particles are deposited on the cryosphere they absorb more solar radiation than the surrounding snow and ice, lowering the albedo. The lower albedo means the snow is less reflective and quicker to melt.”

Khan’s work in Antarctica will explore these biogeochemical drivers of snowmelt, including soot from Southern Hemisphere wildfires, as well as algae growing on and within the snow.

Her recent research, published in the European Geosciences Union’s journal, The Cryosphere, shows that red and green algae growing on snow in the Antarctic Peninsula causes significant extra snowmelt that is on par with melt from dust on snow in the Rocky Mountains.

“We are seeing these algae blooms spread across wide areas along the West Antarctic coast. The blooms can be so intense and dark that they warm the surface and cause more melting. It’s like wearing a black t-shirt on a hot, sunny day,” Khan said. “To make matters worse, regional surface temperature warming is likely expanding and strengthening the snow algae bloom season in Antarctica. These are the issues we are going to explore over the next five years.”

For more information on her research or new NSF CAREER grant, contact Alia Khan at alia.khan@wwu.edu; find out more about Western's research on the growing threat of climate change at wwu.edu/climatechange.

Alia Khan gets a snow sample high in the Himalayas