Aurora borealis --a perk of Arctic research

“Climate change is occurring most rapidly in the Arctic, compared to anywhere else on the planet,” says atmospheric and analytical chemist Kerri Pratt. “What I see with my own eyes in the Arctic is really shocking, and it scares me."

A U-M assistant professor of chemistry, climate specialist, and Arctic enthusiast, Pratt was recently named to the Analytical Scientist’s Power List: The Top 40 under 40.”

This honor is a tribute to Pratt’s creative and groundbreaking research using novel analytical methods to understand the effects of Arctic climate change on our atmosphere, according the other chemists who nominated Pratt for this award.

“We are tackling things that have never been measured before,” Pratt explains, for example, the relationship between atmospheric aerosols and decrease in Arctic sea ice.

Applying analytical chemistry to the study of atmospheric chemistry

Pratt lab researchers with custom-built mass spectrometer behind them in Arctic lab

Pratt credits her rural upbringing in northeastern Pennsylvania for her love of not only the outdoors but also the winter season, a time that many people tend to scorn. “I’ve turned down opportunities to go to warmer places, which would be more desirable for other people,” she says.

Beginning with a love of environmental science, Pratt was inspired during her initial research years to focus on mass spectrometry and has found a way to combine her passions: the Arctic and instrumentation.

“I found a niche that is not a crowded research area in the U.S.,” she explains. “I have the unique capability of applying analytical chemistry to the study of atmospheric chemistry. I’m not just a user of instruments, so I can do unique things as a result. I look at where my expertise is and where the most urgent questions are.”

Urgent questions about air quality, sea ice, and climate change

Those urgent questions include: What is shaping the negative environmental changes? How are these factors involved in the loss of sea ice in the Arctic? How can these things be measured?

“The Arctic is the place on the planet that is in the forefront of climate change,” says Pratt. “There used to be ice at the shore where we do our research in northern Alaska decades ago. There were waves breaking when we visited last winter.

“If it were eighty degrees here in Michigan in December for a few weeks, you would say something is wrong. If it happened, year after year, you would say we are not supposed to be living in a climate like this. That is what it is like in the Arctic—the norms of their climate are changing.”

What is even more frightening, Pratt adds, “The system is changing more rapidly than we can measure the changes.”

Other research tied to climate change—for example, renewable energy sources such as biofuels, tidal power stations, or solar cells—is moving ahead rapidly, but there is still very little known about atmospheric chemistry in the Arctic. “Right now, there are very few observations in the Arctic. What we have done to this point is just the tip of the iceberg. We know very little,” Pratt says.