UA Seeks Answers From the Deep
From the Southern Ocean, professor Joellen Russell is collecting big data that is expected to tell us more about the Earth and its climate.

By Robin Tricoles, University Communications
Feb. 28, 2018


The UA's Becki Beadling  and Joellen Russell have been working on a $21 million collaborative project, whose goal is to understand the Southern Ocean's acidification, heat uptake, and carbon and nutrient cycling.
The UA's Becki Beadling and Joellen Russell have been working on a $21 million collaborative project, whose goal is to understand the Southern Ocean's acidification, heat uptake, and carbon and nutrient cycling. (left)

Clad in an orange life jacket and hard hat, Becki Beadling hustles to the stern of the research ship. She hears the hum of the engine and the sound of the swells slapping against the hull. She takes in the scent of the sea, that of the Southern Ocean, a scent quite unlike that of the Jersey Shore, not far from where she grew up.

It's a little before sunrise, and Beadling and other researchers on the ship's midnight-to-noon shift have just liberated a svelte, 55-pound, banana-colored robotic float from its wooden storage box stowed on deck. The researchers tie a rope around the device, hoist it just above the ship's rail and then gently lower it over the side. They watch it drift away, prostrate. Soon enough, the float rights itself, its sensors and its satellite antenna pointing skyward.

Beadling is a graduate student in the University of Arizona's Department of Geosciences. Her graduate adviser is Joellen Russell, associate professor of geosciences and Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Integrative Science. Beadling has a rare opportunity at the UA to do impactful research with Russell, a preeminent oceanographer.

Russell is helping to lead SOCCOM, the Southern Ocean and Climate and Carbon Modeling Program, a $21 million collaborative project, whose goal is to understand the Southern Ocean's acidification, heat uptake, and carbon and nutrient cycling. The program is in its early stages of a years-long mission to employ 200 robotic floats to collect big data, data on the Southern Ocean's chemistry, data that speak to the health of the Earth and its climate.

SOCCOM is the biogeochemical portion of a program known as Argo, a global array of 3,800 battery-powered floats that monitor and transmit data on the temperature and salinity of the world's oceans. The data are used chiefly to forecast weather events, such as whether a hurricane is going to blow up or whether a storm is going to dump a lot of water or a little, Russell says.

"Argo is integral to our prediction system for the weather on land," she says. "The ocean is 71 percent of the Earth's surface, so if you want to do weather predictions, you have to know what's going on at sea."

SOCCOM is funded through the National Science Foundation's Polar Program. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing half of SOCCOM's float, which unadorned are the same as Argo floats. That is, the floats from Argo are equipped with sensors for temperature and salinity only. But Russell and her team are adding additional sensors to the mix: one for oxygen, because the ocean's oxygen is decreasing with warming; one for nitrate, which drives the ocean's productivity; and one for pH, which indicates the level of acidification of the ocean and is dependent on carbon uptake.

Once the sensors are added, they are deployed in the Southern Ocean.

"They sink to 1,000 meters, where it's dark and cold and nothing grows on them to foul up their works," Russell says. "Every 10 days, they drop down to 2,000 meters — that's 20 football fields — and make a full profile of measurements as they return to the surface."

Some might wonder how studying an ocean that hugs Antarctica can help scientists understand the Earth's weather and climate. But the Southern Ocean is unique. It is comprised of the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and is known for its powerful current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and as such its deep-ocean upwelling.

Russell refers to the Southern Ocean as "Earth's fiercest ocean," but it's a friend to Arizona. It buffers changes to our climate. In fact, two-thirds of the anthropogenic heating from greenhouse gases and half of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide are taken up by the Southern Ocean.

"The mixing is so fast down there that the deep ocean sees only glimpses of this human-made atmosphere," Russell says. Glimpses it has never seen before.

Saving Property, Saving Lives

Being able to accurately forecast the trajectory of the Earth's climate is crucial for predicting where it is safe to build homes and businesses, for selecting crops that will grow and thrive, and for anticipating what diseases may arrise. In essence, being able to forecast the climate's trajectory will "save lives and property," Russell says. "How else can we save our coastal communities? How else can we prepare to be resilient against bigger storms, against bigger floods, against more severe wildfire seasons and heat waves?"

Using the data streamed from the floats, Russell and her team work on earth-system models and climate projections that can tell us more about climate.

Here's how: The researchers make a hypothesis about what's happening on Earth. They deploy sensors to observe the ocean. They gather the observations by iridium satellite, and then they execute a preliminary data crunch with the supercomputer at the UA's research data center or at the UA-led CyVerse, a national cyberinfrastructure for life sciences research that depends on immense computational power and whose vision it is to transform science through data-driven discovery. The researchers then filter the data and make it publicly available.

"We host a lot of that filtered data on CyVerse, and you can come in and rummage through our toolkit on GitHub," Russell says. "You can actually see the tools that I use, which is part of our radical transparency, where we not only make our observations available, we make all the algorithms we use to analyze the data available, and we make all the processing and data visualization available."

In fact, what Russell and her team are doing is bringing cyber, digital and robotic-supported discovery to everyone, from students participating in science fairs to professionals from diverse disciplines, with the goal of accelerating discovery — something Russell says is desperately needed.

"Back in the 1990s, people were still arguing about how much climate change there would be," she says. "We were only adding about one part per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. Everyone said, 'That's scary, but that's a long-term problem.' But in the 2000s, we added two parts per million every year, and in the 20-teens we added three parts per million, and last year it was 3.4 parts per million, and we're going to hit four before the middle of the 2020s.

"We're ahead of schedule. At one part per million, everyone said, 'That's a 100-year problem.' But at four parts per million per year, that's a 20-year problem."

Or perhaps it's a problem that must be reckoned with even sooner. Russell says a few U.S. military bases, including the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, which is at sea level, are subject to the effects of a shift in climate in the form of flooding. "We have only 18 inches left before it's unusable," she says. "And we have all these atoll facilities, which are inches from sea level."

Crucial Role of Artificial Intelligence

However, not all of the news about the climate is bad.

"The good news is we're already making amazing progress," Russell says. U.S. carbon emission is down 18 percent, she says.

"If the Southern Ocean continues to take up as much heat as it is now, we're going to warm, but the trajectory will be a little bit slower. It's buying us time, a tiny moment of grace where we can make good decisions, and we can build technology, and we can get our feet under us on the problem."

In fact, Russell says she is working on a way to combine observational data with a computational model to figure out which of the world's top economies are pumping the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

To do so will require as much artificial intelligence machine learning as researchers can get, to enable the world's 6,000 oceanographers to understand the science behind the atmospheric energy imbalance that is going into our oceans — and the profound damage it is causing to many of the oceans' organisms.

"We don't have enough ships to make enough measurements," Russell says. "So, we are using every tool we can get our hands on, to shine a light on the path in front of our feet. We are grabbing what we can carry, running out of the burning building of the past into the dark night of the future. And in that dark night, what wouldn't we give for a little light in front of our feet? Just a little light."

Extra info


"Boats, Floats and Climate Models: Understanding Our Ocean" with Becki Beadling


Borderlands Brewing Co., 119 E. Toole Ave.


6 p.m. Thursday, April 12


The digital, physical and biological worlds are converging with startling speed, and a future that was unimaginable only a few years ago is already upon us. University of Arizona researchers are at the forefront of this sweeping change, often working across disciplines toward important discoveries. The UANews series Fast Forward has introduced some of the UA's change agents — and shown how their efforts are transforming the way we live.

Read Joellen Russell's op-ed for Nature: "Ocean sensors can track progress on climate goals"


Resources for the media

Joellen Russell

UA Department of Geosciences