Dr. Bill Simpson

Dr. Bill Simpson, an environmental chemist at at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, studies atmospheric chemistry in the Arctic. A professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, he  performs research with the Geophysical Institute. He currently is the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair, where he helps teach students about Environmental, Physical, and General Chemistry. His research focuses on how the Arctic processes pollutants differently from other parts of the Earth. A major focus of the work is how snow and ice and chemicals on their surfaces speed chemical processing. Changing Arctic sea ice conditions are altering these snow and ice surfaces, and he hopes to understand how those climatic changes may affect atmospheric chemical processing.

Bill Simpson’s website at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks

https://fairair.community.uaf.edu
https://alpaca.community.uaf.edu/alpaca-field-study/
https://www.uaf.edu/ess

Interviews

2009

In this interview, Bill Simpson, professor of chemistry at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, discusses his research on Arctic atmospheric chemistry. He is particularly interested in understanding how the snow, ice, and unique environmental conditions of the Arctic impact chemical reactions in the atmosphere. His research involves measuring the chemicals in the atmosphere and relating them to what is in the snow and ice. By understanding the chemical transformations in the Arctic, he hopes to predict how changes in the environment will affect the Arctic atmosphere. Simpson notes that the Arctic has not been studied chemically for very long, and it is challenging to understand the interactions between chemicals without measuring multiple species. Furthermore, the ongoing sea ice change is creating frustration as it is impossible to know what the Arctic atmosphere looked like several decades ago.

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Dr. Bill Simpson loves winter for its unique beauty and the opportunities it presents. The snow and light create a magical atmosphere, and the winter landscape is great for outdoor activities. Despite the cold temperatures, the winter makes it easier to move around the area, which is often swampy and difficult to traverse in the summer. Bill particularly enjoys exploring new sights and sounds in the winter. The Arctic environment is fragile, and the winter months offer a chance to travel without leaving too much impact. Fascinated by the physical processes that occur in this unique environment such as the formation of frost on trees and the creation of overflow ice, he sees the Arctic not as just one place, but many different places, each with its own beauty and character depending on the season.

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Atmospheric chemist from Fairbanks, Alaska, Bill Simpson discusses how multi-year sea ice is becoming increasingly difficult to find in Barrow (Utqiaġvik), a location where Native people have been relying on it for a long time. Multi-year sea ice is prized because it has survived the summer and the salts in it have melted away, making it drinkable. He describes how he traveled with Iñupiaq whalers, who look for pieces of multi-year sea ice to melt and drink for water when they hunt. He notes that finding multi-year sea ice is getting harder and harder, and that locating an ice camp that satisfies all the criteria for scientific research is becoming increasingly challenging.

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Dr. Bill Simpson talks about studying the Arctic. During springtime, the sea ice in the Arctic is laden with salts, which can be transformed into reactive species in the atmosphere known as reactive halogens. These halogens can react with long-lived species like ozone and mercury. His research aims to understand this process so as to determine the impacts of halogen chemistry on people and ecosystems.

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Bill Simpson is talking about his appreciation for the unique qualities of Fairbanks, Alaska. He notes that everyone there is into something, whether it’s winter sports, spring activities, or summer adventures like canoeing. He likes that the people there are lucky to live in a place with a manageable population size, unlike some places where there are so many people doing the same job that they begin to lose their individuality. Bill also appreciates the friendly and helpful nature of the people in Fairbanks, who are clever and have a lot of know-how in order to survive in the challenging environment. He contrasts this with his experience in Germany, where he found that people put up a shield and didn’t interact as much with strangers, possibly due to the larger population. He concludes that Fairbanks is lucky to be the right size for maintaining a sense of community and individuality.

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Bill Simpson loves working with people in the Arctic because it’s essential to understand and feel the environment to do good science. Even though robotic systems can go to places that are too dangerous for humans, they can’t replace the ground truth provided by locals who have seen the changes in the Arctic over time. Bill finds it exciting to work with people like Carl Kippy, a hunter from Barrow, who is interested in the research on halogen chemistry related to mercury, a concern for people who eat certain foods in the region. Bill also appreciates the insights and observations that locals provide and how they can point out things that he wouldn’t see otherwise. He recalls an experience of snow sampling in Barrow with Carl and how he learned from him about the richness and variability of snow, something that only locals would know. Bill finds working with people in the Arctic very different than working in places like Alert, a Canadian station located beyond native people’s land, where there are no leads or open water.

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2023

Bill Simpson explores themes of optimism and pessimism about the future, especially regarding environmental changes in the Arctic. Interviewing North Slope natives, he delves into the impact of climate change on traditional subsistence hunting and local culture. One native elder’s perspective on adaptability and resilience in the face of environmental changes stands out, highlighting a response of practicality over anger. Bill reflects on his commitment to environmental stewardship, like installing solar panels and building energy-efficient homes, despite recognizing the enormity of global ecological challenges. He shares his personal connection to skiing as a metaphor for adaptability to changing conditions, pondering its future as both a sport and a symbol of his connection to nature. His contemplation reveals a nuanced view, balancing concern for the environment with a passion for outdoor activities.

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Bill Simpson discusses his experiences teaching Earth System Science, focusing on the Arctic and its changing environment. Simpson highlights the program’s interdisciplinary approach and its emphasis on building a community of students interested in Arctic change, including aspects like hydrology and atmospheric changes. He notes the enthusiasm and insightful questions from students during a seminar talk. Simpson also mentions the program’s efforts to engage with local communities, indigenous peoples, and Elders, reflecting a positive shift towards inclusive and collaborative research. He observes that students show a strong interest and motivation in studying Arctic changes, bringing a fresh and positive perspective compared to the more pessimistic outlook of older generations. Simpson concludes by mentioning the excitement and energy young students bring to their studies in the Arctic, captivated by the novelty and uniqueness of the environment.

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Bill Simpson discusses the crucial role of scientists in deeply engaging with communities, particularly in environmental matters. He stresses the importance of starting early in understanding community concerns, using the example of conflicts between heating needs and air quality in Fairbanks. Simpson acknowledges the challenge of integrating community engagement within the grant-funded research framework, noting his advantage as a local resident in establishing connections. He cites an example from New York City, where town hall meetings on decarbonization reveal public fear and anger, underscoring the need for better communication and engagement to facilitate the transition in addressing climate change. This highlights the significance of not just scientific research, but also the human and community aspects in environmental issues.

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In this video, Bill Simpson reflects on the importance of connecting students with the natural environment in their studies. He discusses the value of outdoor education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he teaches, emphasizing the need for real-world experiences in environmental science education. While he personally hasn’t been deeply involved in such programs, he recognizes their potential impact on students. Simpson also touches on the shift in his own research from fieldwork to remote sensing, acknowledging the benefits of both but expressing a desire to return to more hands-on, field-based research. He notes that while remote sensing provides global insights, it can sometimes detach scientists from the physical environment they study. Simpson also comments on the broader trend in science towards outdoor and immersive research experiences, highlighting the benefits of interdisciplinary connections and personal interactions that occur in field settings. Additionally, he reflects on the role of technology, like Zoom, in education and research, acknowledging its benefits but also its limitations in fostering deep, meaningful connections.

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In this video, Bill Simpson reflects on changes he’s observed over the past 13 years, particularly focusing on the Arctic environment and his experiences with remote sensing and fieldwork. He discusses the shift in his work towards more remote sensing and less fieldwork, noting a reduction in his visits to the North Slope and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on his ability to connect deeply with people in the Arctic. Simpson expresses his continued love for winter and the Arctic landscape but is struck by the noticeable environmental changes in Fairbanks, such as the development of sinkholes and the increasing prevalence of rain-on-snow events. He describes a significant rain-on-snow event around Christmas 2021, highlighting its unusual timing and the profound impact on local infrastructure, travel safety, and wildlife. This event created challenges like impassable roads and difficulties for animals, underscoring the tangible effects of climate change. Simpson emphasizes the importance of adapting to these changes while maintaining a connection to the natural world, even as the conditions evolve.

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Bill Simpson discusses the extensive data analysis and research writing he plans to do, focusing on two major field studies: CHACHA on the North Slope and ALPACA in Fairbanks. He highlights the significant collaboration involved, with nearly 20 institutions, around four dozen people participating in the Fairbanks field study, and approximately 100 people involved in the analysis or fieldwork. The ALPACA study, aimed at understanding atmospheric chemistry under cold and dark conditions, had three main facets. One was indoor chemistry research, investigating pollution infiltration into homes from outdoor sources and emissions from indoor activities like cooking and heating. They discovered that while houses can reduce outdoor pollution levels, indoor activities can significantly contribute to indoor air pollution. The study also revealed limitations of popular but not scientifically precise instruments like the Purple Air sensors, which inaccurately measured fine particle concentrations due to their design limitations. Simpson’s reflections demonstrate the complexity and importance of understanding environmental chemistry in Arctic conditions and the challenges of accurately measuring and interpreting data in this unique context.

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