Researcher contact information:
UA media contact:
Mari N. Jensen
Media contact for Jorge Sarmiento (Princeton):
The Southern Ocean that encircles Antarctica is keeping Earth's temperature hospitable by soaking up half of the human-made carbon in the atmosphere and a majority of the planet's excess heat.
Now Joellen Russell, a University of Arizona associate professor of geosciences, is leading a team of scientists that will improve how the Southern Ocean is represented in the computer models used to understand climate change and to make projections about future global warming.
Her research is part of a larger multi-institutional effort to understand the Southern Ocean’s role in climate regulation and ocean health. The Southern Ocean is 30 percent of the world’s ocean area.
“The oceans are taking up 93 percent of the human-caused warming. We need to understand where the warming is going,” she said. “We suspect a huge portion of it is going into the Southern Ocean.”
Russell, a UA 1885 Society Distinguished Scholar, has a $2.36 million grant over six years as part of a larger effort called the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling program (SOCCOM) that will study the Southern Ocean's role in climate regulation and ocean health.
The six-year initiative is headquartered at Princeton University and includes the UA plus nine other institutions. SOCCOM is funded by a $21 million federal grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs, with additional support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.
SOCCOM has three main components. The first will collect biogeochemical and physical information year-round from hundreds of robotic floats deployed around Antarctica. The second, Russell’s team, will use information gathered by the floats to improve climate models. The third arm of the program will share what SOCCOM learns with the larger scientific community and the public.
SOCCOM director Jorge Sarmiento, Princeton's George J. Magee Professor of Geoscience and Geological Engineering and director of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, said, "The scarcity of observations in the Southern Ocean and inadequacy of earlier models, combined with its importance to the Earth's carbon and climate systems, means there is tremendous potential for groundbreaking research in this region."
Russell will lead the Theme 2 - Modeling effort to use the new data to analyze and improve a new generation of high-resolution earth system models.
“These scientists are the best in the world at making climate models for the Southern Ocean,” she said. “I am so excited to work with them.”
The team, which includes Sarmiento and other colleagues at Princeton, NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, the University of Miami, Oregon State University and the UA, will increase our understanding of the Southern Ocean’s current workings and make better projections of the future trajectory of the Earth’s climate and biogeochemistry.
In addition, Russell’s team will include two UA undergraduates, two UA graduate students and two UA post-doctoral research associates.
Information from the floats is key to improving the models, Russell said.
“These are the first biogeochemically sensored floats that will allow us to measure the amount of carbon the Southern Ocean takes up at the same time that we measure heat uptake,” she said.
Roughly 200 floats will provide almost continuous information related to the ocean's carbon, nutrient (nitrate, in particular) and oxygen content, at the surface and deep beneath it. The floats are augmented biogeochemical versions of the nearly 4,000 Argo floats deployed worldwide to measure ocean salinity and temperature. SOCCOM marks the first large-scale deployment of these biogeochemical floats.
UA alumna Hannah Zanowski (2011) is part of the team that will deploy the floats from the German icebreaker Polarstern. Zanowski, now a doctoral candidate at Princeton, was inspired to pursue her current career path by taking Russell's oceanography class. During her senior year at UA, Zanowski had a NASA Space Grant Internship with Russell and conducted research on westerly wind dynamics over the Southern Ocean and their relationship to Antarctic sea ice variability.
The floats will increase the monthly data currently coming out of the Southern Ocean by 10 to 30 times, Sarmiento said.
"These floats are revolutionary and this major new observational initiative will give us unprecedented year-round coverage of biogeochemistry in the Southern Ocean," he said.
Aside from carbon and heat uptake, models have indicated that the Southern Ocean delivers nutrients to the lower-latitude surface waters that are critical to ocean ecosystems around the world. In addition, as levels of carbon dioxide in atmosphere increase, the impacts of ocean acidification are projected to be most severe in the Southern Ocean.
The floats will be constructed at the University of Washington with sensors from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. NOAA’s Climate Program Office will provide half of the basic Argo floats. Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego will lead float deployment, observation analysis and data assimilation.
Researchers from Oregon State and NOAA will develop the floats’ carbon algorithms. In addition, researchers at the University of Maine and Rutgers University will conduct a complementary NASA-supported project that will equip the floats with bio-optical sensors that gather information about biological processes in the water column.
Climate Central, a nonprofit science and journalism organization based in Princeton, will oversee the broader-impacts effort to share SOCCOM research with the scientific community, industry partners, policy makers and the general public.