For Joellen Russell, the future is in our hands. This is a belief she matured on her journey that started as a child in a tiny fishing village in the Arctic Circle and led her to study the movements of the sea and atmosphere to the point of bringing the ocean into weather forecasting.
Oceanographer, climate scientist, and Professor at the University of Arizona Joellen Russell’s research combines models and observations to study and predict the ocean’s role in the climate and carbon cycle of the past, present and future. Russell has a vision for our sustainable future: we are already building it, and we will complete the job in a few decades. How? Follow us on this carbon trip to find out.
Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, a podcast produced by the CMCC and FACTA.
Joellen Russell is an oceanographer, climate scientist and distinguished professor at the University of Arizona. Her research uses robot floats, satellites, and supercomputers to observe and predict the ocean’s role in the climate and carbon cycle of the past, present and future.
Russell is one of the authors of the climate scientists’ amicus brief cited in the landmark 2007 Massachusetts vs the EPA Supreme Court decision that ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant covered under the Clean Air Act and must be regulated by the EPA.
Russell is also the lead for the modelling theme of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project (SOCCOM), including its Southern Ocean Model Intercomparison Project (SOMIP), in active collaboration with colleagues at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (NOAA/GFDL). Russell currently serves as Co-Chair of the NOAA Science Advisory Board’s Climate Working Group and on the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Community Earth System Model Advisory Board. She received her A.B. in Environmental Geoscience from Harvard and her PhD in Oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I don’t want to go to Cop ever again and not have just every kid, every person, every scientist, every politician yelling ‘Don’t burn it, just don’t burn it’. That’s the message. Just don’t burn it.”
Carbon. The chemical element with the symbol C and atomic number 6. The “glue of life” in Group 14 of the periodic table we study at school. Carbon is everywhere: we eat carbon, we are made of carbon, and we need carbon to live. And yet, this need is entwined with the greatest problem humanity faces today – the climate crisis. When we burn fossil fuels, we release into the air huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas causing global warming. We are responsible for that. Human activities have raised the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content by 50% in less than 200 years.
I am Giulia Bonelli, science journalist, and this is Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, a podcast produced by the CMCC Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change and FACTA.
Today, we are going on a carbon trip. We follow carbon from the atmosphere deep down its main storehouse, the ocean. And then we imagine the future – a future with no carbon emissions, where we just don’t burn it. But let’s start from the beginning.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “Say we have four molecules of carbon dioxide that anyone is emitting into the atmosphere. Four molecules. Two of them will hang out in the atmosphere for roughly 600 to 1000 years, one of them will go into our land plants, and one of them will go into the ocean within a year. Yes, it’s amazing. And then the second part is, of course, that when we look at the energy budget of our entire planet, of the excess energy that we know is staying trapped in our system, the ocean is taking up 93%. 93% of the heat and one out of four carbon molecules that comes out of anyone’s tailpipe anywhere in the world.”
This is Joellen Russell, oceanographer, climate scientist, and Professor at the University of Arizona. Her research combines models and observations to study and predict the ocean’s role in the climate and carbon cycle of the past, the present and the future. But why the ocean?
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I’m an oceanographer and I’ve spent about a year of my life at sea making measurements. But I’m also a climate modeller using large-scale dynamical models that are now used here in the U.S. and in Europe for our weather prediction, not just our climate projection, but our weather prediction and forecasting. And these models are now used to great success to test because we don’t want to carry out further experiments on our planet. We used Earth system models in order to get a look at what our future may be like and to estimate what the impact of certain policy choices, certain energy choices, agricultural choices might have if we follow them to their ultimate impact. And so I use a combination of observations and modelling to try and see a little bit about our future. And the reason I start with the ocean is because, one, it’s the biggest carbon reservoir on planet Earth. And I say that, and everyone will go: ‘Well, what about the crust?’ Nope, nope, nope. 37,000 metric grams of carbon in the ocean and only 600 in the atmosphere. So the ocean stirring the change in the circulation and how much carbon the ocean can take up and how much it keeps is absolutely essential to what happens for our grandchildren. Our great, great, great, great grandchildren.”
So the ocean plays a vital role in the carbon cycle of our planet. According to satellite data from NASA, the total amount of carbon in the ocean is about 50 times greater than the amount in the atmosphere and is exchanged with the atmosphere on a time-scale of several hundred years. Currently, 48% of the carbon emitted to the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning is sequestered into the ocean. And this is causing an acidification of the ocean – something Joellen Russell was able to experience first-hand.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “As you dissolve that CO2 into the ocean, it lowers the pH because it forms a carbonic acid, which is a weak acid. So we are slowly titrating our oceans with a weak acid created by these fossil fuel emissions, which is an extraordinary thing to say. And so I’m out there in the ocean making, you know, pH measurements by hand from bottles of water brought to the surface, pressure triggered at different depths. And I’m finding this incredibly time intensive for every measurement. And then you realize that you’re sitting under a big storm and that it’s mixing this deep water up to the surface. And I’m like, well, how big is the area that’s being mixed up? I can see how fast it’s coming here. But what about a mile away? What, about ten kilometers away? What about all the way on the other side of the Southern Ocean? I need to know what’s going in and what’s coming out of the ocean in order to make a budget, in order to understand how these storms are affecting this deep ocean water. And so I came back onto land, and I said, okay, I need to learn how to model. There’s clearly something going on with the winds.”
And she was right. Joellen Russell’s first insights about the ocean winds would lead her to the development of a new paradigm in climate science: that warmer climates produce intensified westerly winds. This mechanism is responsible for transferring one-third of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the ocean and then back out again.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I did my post-doc fellowship at the University of Washington and spent a lot of time working with Mike Wallace, who’s an atmospheric dynamicist. Because when I gave my job talk, I said: ‘So there’s this interannual variability that has this big trend, this seasonal trend, in the ventilation of our ocean, of how much water is seeing the surface and how much gas is being taken up. And I’ve asked everyone, I don’t know what this is’. And he said, ‘that’s the westerlies, that’s the annular mode shift’. And I said, ‘Oh, I need to work with you’. And that really changed the systems approach – Earth system, not thinking about just an ocean, not thinking about just an atmosphere even, but this coupled. So I worked with Mike for a while. We published some papers. I really adored them. And then I said, well, I need to learn how to do the dynamic modelling because I want to see what happens in the future. I want to be able to do these big budgets. So I moved to Princeton University and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at NOAA, where we worked on they the Southern Ocean in the models.”
Now you are hearing the sound of CO2 in a data sonification project by Chris Chafe, director of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. This piece is called “Black Cloud”, and was composed starting from the real-time data on the CO2 levels in different cities. By the way, if you are interested in climate data sonification, we did a whole episode about it on this podcast, number 2.
But let’s go back to Joellen Russell’s work on CO2 in the ocean – we left her at Princeton University, working on climate models.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: I was also working at the same time on paleo problems of how did we get from a glacial state where there were three kilometers of ice on Boston, you know, and 180 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, to the 260, parts per million that we started with in the pre-industrial age. How did that happen? It was so quick and amazing and most models couldn’t do it. And I came out basically with a mechanism with my colleague Robbie Toggweiler, that said, as we warm the planet (this is just like what’s happening today), as we warm the planet, we push the wind, the westerlies, move poleward and intensify. And that additional stirring has the potential to stir excess carbon out of the deep ocean. And that’s how we would have gotten out of the glacial-interglacial. And it’s what we’re seeing now, except driven by anthropogenic means.”
This discovery led Joellen Russell to her current job at the University of Arizona. Here, she works to observe and predict the role of the ocean in the climate and carbon cycle of the past, the present and the future. To do that, her research team combines satellite data, supercomputers and cutting-edge technologies such as robot floats.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “So what we’re doing, the reason we need the robot floats is back to when we figured out that the Southern Ocean wasn’t working very well in the models. We put together a proposal for an array of floats called SOCCOM – the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling. So observations and modelling, carbon and climate, right, putting these things together in one project to actually try to solve the budget – and the changes in that budget – in the Southern Ocean, which turns out to be so out of the one in four carbon molecules that goes into the ocean, one half of that fully half goes in around Antarctica, goes into the Southern Ocean. So this is why it’s so critical to have one-eighth of the budget be so uncertain is a profound challenge.
So that project turned into a project that my colleagues have funded, which is GO-BGC, which is an American NSF project funded for 500 more of these floats to be deployed globally. So we’re getting seasonal and synoptic near real-time data on our carbon system, on our biological systems, that we can not only use immediately to take a look at what’s happening in our ocean right there, right under a hurricane, right during the winter, under the ice – we have ice-avoiding floats… But in addition, we are using that as data assimilation. And I cannot tell you how exciting this is to have true biogeochemical state estimates the data assimilation to have an initial condition fully developed with the major biogeochemical constituents that you need so that we can do, we are moving towards a biogeochemical and ecosystem forecast – not just projections, not just riding along within our system model, but forecast.”
When it comes to climate models, scientists usually don’t like this term – forecast. But also thanks to robot floats, climate predictions are not science fiction anymore. And that’s why we dared to ask Joellen Russell if she believed that, in the future, we will have predictions about carbon emissions similar to those we have for the weather forecast.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I absolutely do. I have a wonderful student who was using short-term forecasts to demonstrate how you could compare our predictions, our forecasts, with our observations from the floats. It’s really brilliant. He’s now graduated and is on to the naval research labs, it’s wonderful. But my feeling is that at this point, everyone knows whether or not to grab their umbrella when they think about whether or not it will rain, or how hot it will be. And we need similar information so that we can do skills tests on how good our predictions are, especially because we’re getting more non-linear, extreme events. Our hurricanes are bigger, our flood events are stronger, and that ocean mixing, that ocean heat content, is playing a big role in changing the expectations we have about what these impacts will be.
It’s really exciting to be going to near real-time, now that we don’t just have near real-time in the atmosphere, but we also have real-time in the ocean, which was, I think, the missing piece for our to really narrow those uncertainties. I would love it if we could call out our big polluters. If we could challenge each other, you know, shaming each other into better behaviour. I know the better we know and can manage our emissions, I think the more likely that we will collectively decide that we are going to move faster towards our low carbon future.”
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: “As you spend the next two weeks, debating, negotiating, persuading and compromising, as you surely must, it’s easy to forget that ultimately the emergency climate comes down to a single number, the concentration of carbon in our atmosphere. The measure that greatly determines global temperature and the changes in that one number is the clearest way to chart our own story, for it defines our relationship with our world.”
This is biologist, author and presenter David Attenborough, in his powerful speech at Cop26 in Glasgow, in 2021. He invited delegates from all over the world to work towards this main goal, decreasing carbon emissions. He called that a ‘desperate hope’. Today, after Cop 26 and the most recent Cop 27 in Egypt, there is still a long way to go to meet this goal. And the real solutions won’t come from top-down decisions but from individual changes, Joellen Russell says.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I am both very, very worried and deeply inspired. I feel like we were hoping that there would be top-down government-level interventions, regulations and or other approaches. But in fact, it’s like the little boats, it’s like the little boats and Dunkirk. In fact, it was individuals and small companies and people, regular people making decisions far ahead of their governments, far ahead. And I say that because I’m here in the United States, and although we are big emitters and especially big per capita, we are dropping faster than almost any country in the world. We’ve dropped our emissions by 20%. We were over 20% of the global emissions in 2007, and we are now 13%. And if the new Climate Act is even half as effective as we think it will be, we’re going to meet our targets of 50% emissions reductions well before 2050. We may meet them as soon as 2034. We are moving, we’re moving quickly, quickly, quickly. And this is without actually much in the regulatory or top-down space. You know, you should see my neighbours, you know, putting up their solar panels and paying it off over time, switching to electric cars and hybrid cars. Even my old parents switched to hybrid, and they live in the middle of Montana where the distances are so far, and they need, you know, snow tires and, you know… all weather, very, very, very severe conditions. They’re transitioning our buses to electric. They’re moving our school buses that way. And nobody said you had to. It’s just we get it. I think we understand that it’s bad. Please don’t listen to our politicians. Don’t look at what they say. Look at what we’re doing. Because if you look at what we’re doing, we’re transitioning quickly. And I think this is going to accelerate.
I see our future climate. I believe that we will see, by 2050, at the absolute latest, 2070 (and I’m hoping for 2050), we will bend the curve. We will already be on our way down. It will happen.
It’s, it’s where we’re headed. But it will take everyone putting their backs into it. And I can see it. It’s such it’s such an amazing thing. So, we keep pushing. We attribute those emissions. We hold up our big carbon polluters, and we push as a people, you know, they wouldn’t do it top down. So we will do it with the little boats.
This is a terrific combination of sustainability and prosperity. That prosperity looks like clean skies and not quite so hot, you know, less risk of terrible disasters from the weather and more time with your grandbabies. It is such a wonderful thing that they are seeing this blade together, prosperity and sustainability. You know, the better life, you know. I don’t know, in Italy is it La dolce vita, right?”
La dolce vita. It is the “sweet life” imagined in 1960 by Federico Fellini in one of his most famous movies. An enjoyable life, which portrays Rome in a joyful but also somehow desperate mood. And switching to the climate crisis, this mood carries a double feeling, to quote JOELLEN RUSSELL: being both very worried and deeply inspired.
For example, today, we know that low and middle-income countries are usually the least responsible for carbon emissions and yet are now the most vulnerable to the biggest consequences of climate change. How can we balance that?
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “So my favourite thing would be if we were setting up an equivalent of the investment bank, you know, that would support more of the green transition. I mean, imagine, imagine… you put up potential loans for green power installation, and you say, look, if you. And are making the power that you promised. Within five years, we’ll forgive at least half your lot. It would be wonderful, but I’m not depending on that. Partly, I’m kind of depending on the markets. One of the reasons we’re going so far, solar is big here in Arizona is because it’s cheap. It’s really cheap, and the prices keep dropping. Every time we refine the technology, we make it cheaper, faster, more sustainable, longer lived, longer lasting, and more efficient. Every time we do this, and it becomes accessible to even more people on planet Earth. Right. This is how we can actually leverage this. Plus, I’ll just say as a scientist, you know, well, what we can contribute is identifying the carbon accounting. We can track we already track all of the energy through the entire system, right from the sun what goes in, what comes out, and where it goes between. We can do the same for the carbon. We have not put all of our efforts into this yet. It was only very recently that the WMO, the World Meteorological Organization finally agreed to include carbon. For the longest time, we struggled because the WMO really thought only physics. That’s all we do, just physics. But the carbon is part of that physics. It’s become dramatic and so similar to trying to convince our weather modelers that they needed an ocean. We had to convince our weather modelers that they needed that they needed trace gases because they are having a big impact and because we need to prevent their accumulation in the atmosphere.”
Once we have all this scientific information – like near real-time data on our carbon system – how do we use that? How do we translate this knowledge into practical solutions for a better future towards the zero-carbon goal?
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I’ll just confess I’m a hardass here. I’m very, very concerned about the effort we’re putting into carbon dioxide removal efforts. I am skeptical, profoundly. I believe that the same money put into increasing efficiency and reducing the original emission of CO2 into the atmosphere is far more effective. It is the most effective, proven to work and cheaper way to improve our atmosphere is to don’t burn it in the first place. I don’t want to go to Cop ever again and not have just every kid, every person, every scientist, every politician yelling, ‘Don’t burn it, just don’t burn it’. That’s the message. Just don’t burn it. Whereas if you have to have heavy-handed intervention, one, I am skeptical that it will work, two, I think the possibility of graft and corruption is profound. You know, double counting of emissions and forests and whatever for actual “carbon credits” – and I’m using my fingers to make little parentheses there. I am concerned that this is not a wise use of our resources. I understand doing research, but I believe the number of companies that are spinning up really should be dedicating their time and energy to our transition away from fossil fuels and towards green, non-carbon, polluting energy. All of the wonderful things we use that can be electrified should be absolutely as soon as is humanly possible. And the quicker we do that, the cheaper it will be, and the better everyone on our planet will live without this profound impact on great grandchildren’s future.
I have such hope. We make this choice individual after individual, person by person, family by town, by village, by city, by country by world. We make this choice.”
Like the choice Joellen Russel made in the first place when she decided to study the ocean. She started from a fishing village in the Arctic Circle, where she grew up. And then she got work on climate change, the biggest challenge of our time, giving her contribution towards a more sustainable future.
JOELLEN RUSSELL: “I grew up in Kotzebue, which is north of the Bering Strait on the Arctic Ocean, on the Chukchi Sea, and essentially an Alaska native Inuit, a fishing village. It’s amazing to live in a community that is so profoundly knowledgeable about how the world around them works: the ocean, the ice, the food, everything, you know.
And so generous, so kind, so willing to teach us, even though we were silly white kids who didn’t know anything. I fell in love with the ocean as a child, and I wanted to see where the sea ice goes when it breaks up in the spring in the Arctic.”
And you only had a few options. Well, there’s the merchant marine; there’s going into the Navy, or there’s science. And it was the wanting to figure it out that calls me from the middle of the country. You have to imagine a kid, you know, in beat-up sneakers – a girl in the middle of the country in a tiny rural village saying, ‘I’m going to be an oceanographer’. And I got profoundly lucky. I asked: if I could get a scholarship, can I go away to school? And my parents – I had four younger brothers and sisters – said yes. I could if I got a scholarship. And I did. And so the whole journey has just been to come here. So you can’t imagine my profound delight as a human being in the universe to watch my robot floats, to send my students to sea, to see it change and trying desperately to help, help my colleagues around the world to try and understand all the way to the roots, to every person, every citizen, all of us, together to change our fate, to change our future.”
You have listened to Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, a podcast produced by the CMCC Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change and FACTA.
The concept, interviews and texts are by Elisabetta Tola and Giulia Bonelli.
The audio editing is by Lisa Lazzarato.
The original music is by Massimo Bassan
The executive producer at CMCC is Mauro Buonocore.
Foresight – Deep into the Future Planet, is available on climateforesight.eu and wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Photo credits: NOAA Photo Library on Flickr