UArizona oceanographer shares expertise during National Ocean Month

Joellen Russell

Joellen Russell

Chris Richards/University Communications

June marks National Ocean Month, a time to celebrate the oceans that cover more than 70% of Earth's surface and play a crucial role in regulating climate, supporting diverse marine life and sustaining human livelihoods. 

University Distinguished Professor Joellen Russell, head of the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences, is a renowned oceanographer and climate scientist, whose research uses robot floats, satellites and supercomputers to observe and predict the ocean's role in the past, present and future climate. 

She is one of the four guest speakers invited to share their expertise at the U.S. National Science Foundation's sixth annual Frontiers in Ocean Sciences Symposium on June 24. 

During the virtual symposium, Russell will speak about the role of oceans in absorbing heat and carbon, and the impacts of human-caused warming on oceans. 

In advance of her presentation, Russell talked with University of Arizona News about her work and why desert dwellers should care about what goes on in the ocean. 

Q:  You're an ocean researcher living in the desert. How does ocean activity impact people living in Arizona?

A: It's critical to Arizona because the ocean affects the heat waves going on here right now. The westerlies and the jet stream are banging away way up in British Columbia and northern Montana and not coming anywhere near us, which means that we've seen no signs of our monsoon ramping up yet. The winds affect how much heat and carbon our oceans take up. Currently, about 93% of the anthropogenic related warming from the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we emit is going into the ocean, while less than 3% is accumulating in the atmosphere. 

Q: Can you talk about some of your projects related to ocean heat and carbon uptake? 

A: More than 75% of all of the ocean's uptake of heat is happening in and around Antarctica in the Southern Ocean. This year marks the 10th anniversary of our Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project, or SOCCOM, where I am the lead of the modeling group. The aim of the group is to understand and predict how the Southern Ocean and the world will respond to continued greenhouse forcing. 

It's not just 75% of the heat, but about 50% of the carbon taken up by the ocean is going in around Antarctica. We have a new project with the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere Research in New Zealand, where I am collaborating with Sarah Mikaloff-Fletcher, the scientist in charge of CarbonWatch New Zealand. New Zealand is the first, and still the only, country in the world to fully monitor, measure and study the entire impact of a country on the carbon in the atmosphere. I went there to learn how they're doing it and to see if we could figure out how to do it for Arizona.

The extraordinary thing is that our SOCCOM project has deployed almost 300 robotic floats – specialized autonomous devices that help scientists understand and measure how carbon moves and is stored in the ocean. We've had them out for more than 10 years now, and many have made observations near New Zealand. 

Using the data collected by the robot floats and the data assimilation that we do here at the University of Arizona in collaboration with Scripps Oceanographic Institute, we found out that New Zealand's waters, specifically the (area known as the) exclusive economic zone, is taking up huge amounts of carbon. We are working to publish a paper on this now, and I'm going to give away some of the early news at this talk. 

One of my grad students is also running an ocean model simulation around New Zealand to determine if New Zealand will be able to take long-term credit for this incredible ocean sink. 

Q: What are your thoughts on the future of ocean science?

A: We are using robot floats, supercomputers and satellites to make better forecasts of the future climate for all humans on planet Earth. And we need to have a better accounting of each nation’s carbon. Earth is 72% ocean, and the carbon budget is very difficult to quantify when the only measurements are from ships. Now that we've deployed our floats and combined their observations with ship data and satellite data, we can see the whole ocean. This gives people an extraordinary advantage now as we move into practical management of our carbon waste. I am so tickled that we are pioneering in this area.

Resources for the Media

Media Contact(s)
Research Contact(s)