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UA researcher looks to Antarctica ocean to better understand climate change
Tucson researcher hones climate models

UA researcher looks to Antarctica ocean to better understand climate change

Joellen Russell has a vision of holding countries accountable for their carbon-dioxide emissions.

She and her research team are focusing their work in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean — which absorbs a significant portion of the man-made heat generated in the world — to measure the amount of carbon in the water. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels and responsible for rising global temperatures.

Carbon is stored in the atmosphere, ocean and land, said Russell, a University of Arizona associate professor of geosciences. Scientists understand the flux of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in great detail, so if Russell’s team can account for levels in the ocean, then they can infer levels on land, which are too complex to measure directly.

To do this, the team has deployed nearly 100 cylindrical tanks, known as floats, into the Southern Ocean.

The 5-foot sensors drift with the currents about 1,000 meters under the ocean’s surface. Every 10 days, for four hours, they drop another 1,000 meters then bob up to the surface, gathering data along the way, finally returning to their original depth. Within hours, data gathered from the on-board sensors is online so anyone can access it, including Russell, from her desk at the UA.

Russell leads the modeling component of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling Project.

The project is run by Jorge Sarmiento at Princeton University, the floats are built by Stephen Riser at University of Washington, the sensors were made by Ken Johnson from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the floats are deployed by Lynne Talley at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Ocean observations are lacking, Russell said. “Yet we’re trying to figure out how much carbon the ocean is taking up in the summer versus the winter, this year versus last year, and yet, oh my God, there’s no data.”

Her team is funded to deploy another 100 floats, but researchers hope to ultimately send out 1,000 total.

“I know it sounds crazy,” she said. “It’s not.”

of endowed chair

Russell is known for her boldness and enthusiasm among her peers, Sarmiento said.

“She is a first-order scientist for sure, addressing first-order questions,” said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science. “She is just as engaged and engaging with students as she is with mainline scientists and has the capacity to collaborate with individuals to make a huge project happen.”

She was recently named the Thomas R. Brown Endowed Chair. Ruiz nominated her for the position.

With the endowment, she’ll fund her travel to recruit more countries to participate in the float project.

“It’s very meaningful to her to have the chair,” Talley said. “I think it helps that she enjoys working in Arizona. It’s sort of her home turf, and it’s somewhere where she can make a difference.”

“Everyone asks me, ‘What’s an oceanographer studying the Southern Ocean doing in the desert?’” Russell said.

She tells them: The churning Southern Ocean absorbs 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, and two-thirds of the heat that humans pump into the air — holding off rising global temperatures for now.

Water moderates wild changes in temperatures. The Sonoran Desert has no buffer. It is so dry that when temperatures begin to rise, the desert will follow the global average temperature.

going to the sea

Russell loves the desert, but she is not an Arizona native. She spent 10 years of her early life in an Eskimo fishing village called Kotzebue along the Chukchi Sea.

“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said, “and I’ve been many places.”

Russell didn’t know about climate change as a kid, but she knew she wanted to explore.

“I wanted to be like Sally Ride, but space in a tin can was nowhere near as beautiful as where I walked and kayaked,” she said. “So I went to sea.”

She received her bachelor’s degree in environmental geosciences from Harvard University, then her Ph.D. from Scripps, where she met Talley. She was a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton when she met Sarmiento.

Her first venture into deep ocean waters wasn’t until her second year of grad school.

“Oh it was terrifying.” She remembered of being on a ship, hanging onto the walls, the toilet and her dinner. At night, she stuffed a life jacket under half of the mattress to pin herself against the wall.

“I spent almost a year of my life at sea,” she said, and despite all the chaos, “I get very zen because in fact, I’m here and I can only do what’s right in front of me and I’m surrounded by amazingly skilled, hard-working human beings.”

It’s hard work, but it’s important, she said. Even now she insists that researchers need more observations if they are going to make the models and predictions more accurate.

“It would be different if we were roughly within the same range of (carbon dioxide levels and global average temperature) that happened in the past,” she said. “There’d be no rush; we’d just be exploring.

“Instead, we’re rushing to get ahead of the change. We have to observe the change well enough to be able to predict it.”

After the many intense hurricanes of recent years, she thinks that the small community of oceanographers finally has the world’s attention.

“These are profound changes. (Hurricanes) are much bigger than they ought to be and everyone can see that. It’s naked eye obvious.”

A tribe’s generosity

Russell also worries about permafrost melting and turning to mud, threatening villages like the one she grew up in.

“They made room for me in a culture that has been profoundly decimated and has had very hard things to live through,” she said. “If tribes can be like that, then I have an obligation to spend the rest of my life trying to make things better.”

When she was 10, she and her family moved to northern Montana to live with the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, a 2½-hour drive from Glacier National Park.

“When I turned 16, they gave me a star quilt that they made just for me because they wanted me to remember them when I went out into the world,” said Russell.

“They were so generous with a kid who was only a pain in the butt,” she said, wiping away tears.

Russell is proud to serve so many students of color at the UA. “We have more than 25 percent Hispanic students,” she said, and serve many Native American students as well.

She also worries about mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika. The pests thrive in warmer temperatures.

Yet she and her team are so optimistic about the future of climate change. When asked why, Talley said: “We are so much in the middle of doing something about it. ... No one feels like we’re pushing a rock up a hill.”

“At this point we have everything we need,” Russell said: the floats, the models, the funding. “We are roaring.”

Despite the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris agreement on greenhouse gases, the United States has made significant reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions, she said.

“The U.S. scientific expertise is amazing in this area. We lead. There’s no reason for us to take a back seat.”

Contact Mikayla Mace at mmace@tucson.cor or (520) 573-4158. On Twitter: @mikaylagram.

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