Institute at Brown for Environment and SocietyIBES

Sarah Cooley

As an outdoorsy native of Maine, Sarah Cooley has never been a stranger to mountains, forests, or waterways. But a high school backpacking trip to Alaska solidified her love for the natural world, and her fascination with its endless transformation.

“I was amazed by the wildness, remoteness and rugged beauty of Arctic landscapes,” she says. “I became particularly interested when I learned that these landscapes were critical indicators for understanding climate change.”

Cooley, a graduate student in the lab of visiting faculty member Laurence C. Smith, has channeled her enthusiasm for the wild outdoors into a research project that employs remote sensing technology to better understand the ways that lakes and rivers are changing in the Arctic. Her unique, automated approach mines data from high-resolution satellites called CubeSats, enabling her to map changes over larger areas and smaller timescales than ever before.

Cooley hopes that this work will ultimately advance her field’s understanding of seasonal changes in Arctic surface water extent, especially as climate change accelerates these variations.

“This project will help improve our understanding of the areas that may be particularly vulnerable to declines or increases in water availability as the climate warms,” she concludes. “Changes in Arctic water availability related to climate change and thawing permafrost have numerous implications for ecosystems and the global climate—as well as for the hundreds of thousands of people living in Northern regions who depend on lakes and rivers for food, water, and transportation.”

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