WWU prof to study effects of snowmobile pollutants in mountain areas

Western Washington University Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences Ruth Sofield has received a Winter Wildlands Alliance grant to analyze pollutants in snow collected from high-traffic snowmobile areas on Mount Baker and Togwotee Pass, Wyo.

The research seeks to understand the environmental impact of partially burned fuel and other pollutants emitted by snowmobiles on water quality and local aquatic life.

Last winter, Sofield and Western graduates Alan Bergmann (Tacoma) and Brian Church (La Conner) collected snow samples from Mount Baker, while staff from the Teton Science School collected snow samples from Togwotee Pass.

Sofield and current Western students David Wood, (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and Rachel Combs (Ennis, Mont.) will analyze the snow samples to determine the level of pollutants and toxicity present in high-traffic snowmobile areas compared to areas of no snowmobile use.

Knowledge of snowmobile-related pollutants in snow is limited at this point and Sofield’s study seeks to understand the implications these pollutants may have on aquatic life. Her team will test the snow sample’s chemical toxicity on bacteria to assess whether or not the chemicals could kill fish at high enough concentrations in rivers when the snow melts. The chemicals in the snow are not likely to have much of an impact on humans, though the air pollutants from snowmobiles potentially could.

The research findings will be presented at the Pacific Northwest Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Conference in April.

Sofield received her doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and currently teaches courses on toxicology at Western.

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