Joellen Russell doesn’t use a textbook for her introduction to oceanography class. Books are simply too outdated for such a dynamic subject.
Instead, some of the material she presents to her 800 students comes from her team’s research — conducted in the field using robot floats to gather real-time data from the sea showing the carbon uptake by the oceans and then crunching the numbers on the UA supercomputer.
Other material comes from recent scientific studies done by some of the other 6,000 Ph.D.-level oceanographers around the world.
That’s a very small cadre of people who are studying the 71 percent of the Earth’s surface covered by water.
An engaging teacher, Russell peppers her lecture with “it’s so cool,” and “isn’t that amazing,” and “it’s gonna be fun” to introduce a hands-on experiment with six student volunteers demonstrating in a large fish tank the effects of warm water, cool water and salinity on the ocean.
Russell, an associate professor of geosciences, grew up north of the Arctic Circle in a Native American village in Alaska and knew at age 12 she wanted to be an oceanographer.
Just ask Russell about the oceans’ role in our planet’s climate and her eyes light up. “I’m a real research oceanographer. I’ve spent almost a year of my life at sea.”
While much of the climate conversation is directed toward the atmosphere and how carbon dioxide is contributing to the heating of the planet, she focuses on the role the oceans play, absorbing 92 percent of the Earth’s energy imbalance and a quarter of the human-added carbon dioxide.
“We have to understand the life-support system of our planet. Seventy-one percent of the planet is water. The ocean is our life support system,” Russell says.
“I put my life into this, decades of effort and toil toward one direction — to bend the curve. To give people enough certainty to make big changes and a big commitment,” she says.
The curve she’s talking about is reducing carbon dioxide levels being produced by human activity.
Scientists already have good atmospheric measurements of CO2, and Russell’s fleet of robotic floats in the Southern Ocean is contributing to the ocean database. Now what’s needed, she says, is better information about wind exchange over the ocean to be able to improve models and predictions about the future impacts of what is happening today in the air, on land and in the seas.
To that end, Russell is leading the way on a proposal to NASA to launch a small satellite to get that wind data.
“We are building tools for a carbon weather analysis that will allow us to attribute the amount of carbon impact from the top 10 (world) economies.”
Russell says she’s hopeful that humans — presented with facts — can make the changes necessary to slow the production of carbon dioxide that is causing the warming of the planet.
Russell is optimistic. The U.S. has reduced its total CO2 emissions by about 15 percent since 2007, while growing its economy. One big factor is the reduction in electricity use, which Russell attributes to people switching to LED lighting — decreases in carbon emissions from electricity generation account for almost 80 percent of the reduction.
“Sustainability and prosperity align. The United States should lead the effort,” she said.
She says Arizona’s commitment to solar-, hydro- and nuclear-energy sources is positioning the state as a leader in reducing carbon emissions.“Arizona thinks 100 years out.”
Russell says she is thrilled to be in Tucson where she is supported by the university in her research.
Her students’ attitude is “how high” and “let’s try.”
“They are willing to venture out with me.”
And she says the community is “amazing” with its interest in what is happening on campus. “The community wants to know the news.”
Russell is proud of the fact that all of her team’s research is posted online for “full transparency.” That includes the successes and failures.
Scientists have courage, integrity and endurance, she says.
As for her passion about sharing her research, Russell says, “Most people like mysteries. The ocean feels mysterious.”