Women in climate change: Joellen Russell

Joellen Russell

Joellen Russell presents in front of an image of the Franz Josef glacier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Russell and her colleagues have National Science Foundation funding to model the fate of New Zealand's glaciers.

Courtesy of Joellen Russell

During Woman's History Month, University of Arizona News is spotlighting some of the many women on campus who are working on climate change-related issues in various disciplines.

In a recent commentary published in Nature, world-renowned climate scientist and UArizona Regents Professor Diana Liverman and her co-authors write that climate change will have disproportional impacts on women, who in many societies have the responsibility to provide food, water and child care but are more likely than men to lack access to land, insurance and disaster relief. Liverman and her co-authors also write that women play crucial roles in climate change research, response and adaptation.

UArizona has a long legacy of women researching climate change, and today there are outstanding women researchers working on climate-related issues in nearly every college on campus, from early career scientists to Regents and Distinguished Professors. 

"I'm so proud of the number of amazing women working on climate issues at the University of Arizona," Liverman said. "We cover a wide range of expertise – from climate science and communication to policy and art. We are making a difference in what we know and what we can do from the local to global."

Joellen Russell joined the University of Arizona in 2006 and is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Geosciences, Planetary Sciences, Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences and Mathematics in the College of Science. She also is the Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair of Integrative Science.

Russell is the co-chair of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Science Advisory Board Climate Working Group and chair of UArizona Research Computing Governance Committee. She also is one of the 14 scientists who wrote the climate science amicus curiae brief cited in the landmark Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, which ruled that anthropogenic carbon emissions – those resulting from human activity – are pollutants and must be regulated as such.

Q: What is the focus of your climate research?

A: I use floating robots, supercomputers and satellites to predict the global climate and carbon cycle, particularly the role of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. The ocean has taken up over 90% of the heat associated with climate change and one-fourth of the human-derived carbon dioxide; the Southern Ocean is the largest component of that uptake, but unfortunately still has the largest uncertainties associated with it, primarily due to the lack of wind observations. I am proposing to NASA to deploy an additional wind-observing satellite to help us close the global carbon budget and to give us the tools to verify the global treaties related to national carbon commitments.

Q: What originally got you excited or worried about climate issues, and where do you think your work can make a difference?

A: On my first research cruise as a graduate student to the Southern Ocean with gale-force winds, monstrous waves and some unexpected measurements, I knew that this was what I needed to do. The climate and global carbon cycle are changing, and we need all the guidance we can get as we and our children and grandchildren move into uncharted waters. A deeper understanding, coupled with computer-assisted prediction science, will provide the only crystal ball we have about how our collective choices today will affect our carbon future, and how best to steer for the good of all.

Q: What's one thing you want everyone to understand about climate change?

A: It's not too late to save glaciers for our kids, but we must move faster. We need collective action to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The cheapest proven way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is to not burn it in the first place. The three things I would tell everyone are to first swap to non-emitting energy sources – such as nuclear, solar, wind and hydro – from carbon-based sources whenever possible. Second, we need to share how critical and urgent this issue is with our friends, relatives and back-fence neighbors. And, third, we need to speak up and tell our representatives about the importance of collective, immediate action.

Q: What advice do you have for young women or girls who may be interested in a career related to climate research or policy?

A: Come on in, the water's fine! We need all hands on deck to change our climate future. We can't afford to lose even one of our amazing leaders of the future. You are our reinforcements and our hope for a better world. We need you!