The National Geographic Society, in addition to making a magazine, TV shows and website, also funds research and exploration. Once a year, they bring their grantees together for an Explorers’ Symposium in Washington, DC. I had a chance to attend some of the sessions.
For the most part, the explorers are scientists from different fields – anthropologists, archaeologists, conservationists, photographers, educators, oceanographers, epidemiologists, paleontologists, geneticists, geographers, linguists, urban planners, and more. One of the goals is connection forming, both between scientists and between editors of the magazine and TV show and these experts. Ideally, editors get ideas for stories, and researchers make connections that can help them take their work in new, cross-disciplinary directions.
Nowhere was this more clear than the with Thomas Culhane and Katey Walter, two of this year’s Emerging Explorers. You can watch their symposium presentations in the video embedded below. Their chance meeting at the symposium may have laid the groundwork for future collaboration.
Thomas Culhane is an urban planner who specializes on how do-it-yourself solar projects and can transform cities. You can read more about his escapades on Solar Cities, his blog. Right now, he is working with the Zabaleen garbage recyclers of Cairo to install solar hot water heaters and also cooking gas generators. These combine organic waste and anaerobic bacteria to produce methane that can be burned for cooking. While this works just fine in summer, Cairo winters are just cold enough to slow the bacteria down. That’s a problem Culhane would like to overcome.
Katey Walter is an aquatic ecologist and biogeochemist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She’s been researching permafrost and what happens when it thaws in Siberia and Alaska. Permafrost is frozen organic material like ancient vegetation and mammoth bones. When it thaws, the land sinks and lakes form in the low places. Beneath the water this organic material begins to decay, and methane gas bubbles up. Walter’s work has been to measure that methane and estimate its impact on climate change. In the course of her work, she’s surveyed many ponds in the arctic. Many of those have methane bubbling out of through soft spots of the ice – even through the winter. That methane is made by bacteria that work at temperatures much colder than a Cairo winter.
So Thomas Culhane just might get some cold weather methane bugs to experiment with in Cairo. Meanwhile, Katey Walter is working with Alaskan and Native American organizations to find a use for the methane closer to those bubbling lakes.