Climate scientist and oceanographer Joellen Russell ’89 works to preserve the future of the planet.
Growing up in Kotzubue, an Eskimo fishing village located roughly 30 miles above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Joellen Russell ’89 would watch ice breaking up on the Chukchi Sea and wonder where it all went. “We go from walking, skiing, sledding on it ... and then it all goes out to sea, and there’s this beautiful blue water,” Russell recalls. “I wanted to know where the sea ice goes.”
Russell’s father worked for the Indian Health Service, and the family moved to Montana when she was 10 to live alongside the Chippewa Cree Tribe. Already determined to become an oceanographer, Russell knew she needed to seek math and science education beyond the limited resources of her small high school. As a new Fourth Former at St. Paul’s, she was homesick and overwhelmed, but took comfort in Concord’s natural beauty.
In addition to rowing on Turkey Pond and taking snowy runs with the cross-country ski team, Russell found inspiration and support in chemistry class, where her teacher, Cliff Gillespie, “took the time to see not just that I was struggling, but that I had determination,” she recalls. Gillespie, the longtime faculty member and interim rector who died in 2021, had a reputation for being tough, but Russell says he offered encouragement when she needed it most.
After graduating from Harvard, Russell fulfilled her childhood dream of attending Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, for her doctorate. Now a Distinguished Professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, she’s dedicated her career to observing and predicting the ocean’s role in the Earth’s changing climate.
“Most people think of global warming as an atmospheric phenomenon, but more than 90% of the energy is in our ocean,” Russell says. “One out of four molecules of carbon that comes out of anybody's tailpipe anywhere in the world goes into the ocean within a year.”
Much of Russell’s work has focused on the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean, and the westerly winds that stir its waters and pull deeper water to the surface. Her earlier research correctly predicted that warming climates would crank up the speed of these winds, leading to increasing levels of carbon being brought to the ocean’s surface.
Russell’s research team deploys some 300 robot floats with biogeochemical sensors that regularly test the water at different depths in the Southern Ocean. In October 2020, they received funding for 500 more floats to be deployed globally. “This global array is giving us a revolutionary look at how much carbon is going in and out,” Russell says. “This is the breathing of our ocean — our life support system.”
At home in Tucson, which is among the fastest-warming cities in the United States, Russell also sees the effect of climate change firsthand. She began waking her two children up at 5 a.m. last summer so they could walk the dog before it got too hot. As a founding member of Science Moms, a nonpartisan group of climate scientists who are also mothers, Russell aims to demystify climate science and empower people to make decisions and demand solutions that will help preserve the planet for future generations.
“I want in a hundred years for there to be kids rowing and running around the pond at St. Paul's,” Russell says. “These are not just fun memories, but part of what motivates us to make wise decisions now and save what we can.”