Saskatoon

Saskatchewan chemist trying to unlock the mysteries of snow and ice

Tara Kahan, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Canada Research Chair in Analytical Environmental Chemistry, has already spent more than a decade studying snow and ice, and says there is much to learn.

Tara Kahan's primary focus is on pollutants in ice and snow

A researcher at the University of Saskatchewan is trying to understand the chemical reactions of pollutants trapped in ice and snow, like ice show here flowing along the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon. (CBC)

As Canadians, we spend much of our time walking in a winter wonderland — yet one researcher at the University of Saskatchewan suggests we remain in the fog on snow and ice.

"It's exciting how little we know, in a way," said Tara Kahan. "Water is everywhere — it's so important to us, our lives, [but] when it's frozen, we don't know a lot about it."

Kahan, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canada Research Chair in Analytical Environmental Chemistry, has already spent more than a decade studying snow and ice, with an emphasis on what happens to pollutants trapped in a frozen state.

"We are used to pollution in lakes, rivers and stuff like that. All those pollutants can also end up in snow and ice, but what happens to them might be different," Kahan said.

Frozen fossil fuels 

Kahan is focused on pollutants that come from fossil fuels. She cites the example of benzene, which is sometimes found in high concentrations in snow and ice in places like gas stations, areas where hydraulic fracturing is used to search for oil and gas, or in busy shipping lanes.

In water, benzene does not react to sunlight. In ice, Kahan said it's a much different story — everything speeds up.

"This could be a really good thing," she said. "For example, if there's an oil spill and they're reacting really quickly with the sun shining on that snow, maybe it's cleaning [the pollutants] up.

"But on the other hand, they could be making something more toxic than what they started with, in which case this fast reaction would be bad. But we don't know yet."

Tara Kahan, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the Canada Research Chair in Analytical Environmental Chemistry, has already spent more than a decade studying snow and ice. (CBC)

Given Kahan's academic commitment to snow and ice you might imagine her trekking to icy and remote regions seeking out pristine snow to sample, but she admits she "doesn't like to be cold."

So her work is done methodically in a laboratory at the U of S — a lab full of ice cube trays.

Tip of the iceberg 

As Kahan slowly unlocks the chemical mysteries of snow and ice, the findings will be enhanced by existing computer models to hopefully predict what will happen to the pollutants she's studying. 

That should help to shed light on some very important questions, she says.

"We'll be able to just put this data into the model and then predict whether things are going to be good or bad — whether we need to worry, or whether we're really going to be remediating things and cleaning up the snow and ice."

The expression 'pure as snow' does not quite work anymore. For years, scientists have known snow and ice absorb pollutants. Now, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan wants to find out how those chemicals react and what they're changing in our water, land and air. Tara Kahan, a chemistry professor at the U of S and the Canada Research Chair in Analytical Environmental Chemistry, spoke with Saskatoon Morning's Jennifer Quesnel. 8:14

Kahan said that improved understanding of the chemical reaction of pollutants trapped in snow and ice will become vital in trying to mitigate environmental damage in fragile ecosystems.

"The Arctic, actually, is a huge concern because as the winters warm … we're expecting a lot more shipping traffic. There's going to be a lot more pollution there."

While the fog may lift on the issue of pollutants, Kahan doesn't think her work in understanding all the mysteries of snow and ice will ever be done, because there are so many things she would like to explore — topics like "sea ice, or ice that has road salt in it," she said.

Kahan is all in on ice — as long as she doesn't have to spend too much time in the cold.

With files from Saskatoon Morning