Bringing the Ocean to Arizona

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bringing the Ocean to Arizona


Professor Joellen Russell is a Geosciences Faculty member, researcher, chair of the Research Computing Governance Committee (RCGC), and member of the Institute for the Environment steering committee. She is a climate modeler at the University of Arizona (UA) who is bringing the ocean to the desert. She tracks climate changes in the water, air, and earth, using modern technological resources that the university provides, plus others.

Russell went from working on seas to track ocean climate, to observing ocean changes through her desktop with information that comes from floats deeply submerged in the ocean that surface once every 5 days to send out information about carbon levels, climate, and more.

Russell also teaches the Introduction to Oceanography at the UA, a class which is well known for filling up in the first couple of minutes it becomes available—I personally was one of the people who didn’t sign up within the first five minutes, and missed my opportunity to join the class.

At Sea

Russell received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, later getting a doctoral degree from Scripps Institution of Oceanography University of California San Diego. Russell then went to work at the University of Washington, and Princeton, then finally settling down at the University of Arizona.

Ever since, she has done climate model simulations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Laboratory (NOAA/GFDL). “The simulations have been carried out on high performance computing systems at GFDL and here at UA. She has described and discussed the results of her, and other people's, climate models for organizations such as Greenaccord, the World Wildlife Fund, ExxonMobil, UNESCO, the Santa Fe Institute, Pima County, the Society of American Military Engineers, Arizona Project WET, and the League of Women Voters, to name a few” (Goodman).

When Russell was starting out in the field the technology available to her was not what it is today. She instead had to get data by being at sea for months at a time.

Russell describes her experience when she was young and stationed at the southern ocean as an “adventure,” an adventure that became fearful at times.

The southern ocean is known for its harsh weather and remote location. On “good days one could go outside, but on bad days it was dark outside . . . I remember when it was a bad day, I would sit and work, praying nothing would happen . . . when the ship was riding downward on a wave it would feel like I was floating, then it would crash hard on the next wave, and then the process would begin all over again . . . now I look back and think about how funny the situation was, but I regret I never took a picture or video.”

Professor and Researcher

Russell is an 1885 Society Distinguished Scholar, which is an award the University of Arizona gives to faculty who has exceptional promise.

She is also funded by Southern Ocean Carbon, Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM), and the National Science Foundation Polar programs (NSF) to study the southern ocean—“Her NSF-funded project is entitled, [The Southern Ocean in a Warming World: Winds, Carbon and Heat]. The project’s objective is to assess the role of the Southern Ocean—and the rest of the global ocean in the global climate and the response of the climate system to anthropogenic forcing.” She also has grants to study Hominin migration in Africa.

“I study why humans left Africa. Was it climate variability, etc? I am also funded to look at how the northern hemisphere winds over the glacial and interglacial period carved out the Qaidam basin, which is in northern China. We are basically doing amazing, important, relevant science with new technology both on the observational side and the earth system models.”

Russell has worked with many different professors and fields of study. She has worked with Jay Quaid, Paul Kapp, and other members of the Geosciences Department at the UA. She is currently part of an ongoing collaboration with Nirav Merchant and Steve Goff at iPlant looking at the shift in the winds and evaluating local predictions for crop growth and behavior over a long term.

Her research has gone forward thanks to University resources. “The fact that we have this research data center here on campus which, for all computational scientists on campus is a godsend, because instead of building some little cluster of my own, having to hire somebody to attend it, and that’s whoever I can afford, and then have to beg for money every few years, what if there’s a gap between grants, etcetera, where I’d have to lay everybody off because I couldn’t afford it? Instead, I’m buying in through UITS, into the big supercomputers where I can have all the resources with none of the headache.”

“Prof. Russell won the UA Provost’s Teaching Award in 2010 while successfully teaching introductory oceanography to over 1000 undergraduates in a single class, the most popular science class on campus” (Russell). In Russell’s Introduction to Oceanography class, she does visual activities with a fish tank that represents the ocean and its processes. Along with her Introduction to Oceanography class, she has also co-taught a class with Katie Hirschboeck from the tree ring lab about regional and global climatology, and several others.

In Response to the question “what do you like about teaching?” Russell responded “The students here are fantastic, if you give them an opportunity, they really rise to the occasion . . . you want them to have the absolute cutting edge when they get out of here so they can compete with anyone from Princeton or anywhere else, and they do . . . I moved up in the world when I came here, and I am very glad that they hired me.”

Guiding Light

Dr. Russell would “throw me in the deep end in a sense, and let me find a way. It was really great at the end of the day, because it would let me learn things that I now know, and learned on my own. Which is a useful skill for the future,” says Juan Lora, a recent Ph.D. graduate with Joellen who has won the Kuiper award, which is given by the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society.

Lora studies planetary science, and his graduate thesis topic was specifically studying Titan’s—Saturn’s largest moon— paleoclimate. He investigated the hydrological cycle of Titan, which is based on methane, unlike Earth’s, which is based on water.

Lora describes his experience working with Dr. Russell as “unique” because he is a Planetary Science major, and because the perspective Dr. Russell would bring, giving him ideas that he had never thought of that were out of the box. Lora goes to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and is studying planetary climate, he plans to study planet Earth as well, because of the start he got through working with Dr. Russell.

Sailing towards the Future

With the growth of shared resources at the UA, researchers such as Russell can see light at the end of the tunnel for there work.

“UA is coming up in the most amazing way. We are a traditional powerhouse in the environment but we aren’t always ranked that way because people think big state university, how well could we do? But in fact I was a Harvard undergrad and I came here from Princeton, Scripps, and the University of Washington. If you look at Earth Science and Geology the UA is ranked ahead of all of them. It is amazing to see how well the university has really pushed —really with great heart and vision.”

Russell plans to stay at the UA, and help researchers and students grow. Researchers are using Russell’s findings to improve the works of their own research, and some undergraduate students of Russell have taken up her challenge to see and study the future of climate in the world, and now work with Russell as graduate students. Some are even deploying the remote sensor buoys.

“The premise of the research I do is we’re trying to just look ahead. We’re trying to find out what happens next so we can give people as much time as possible to prepare. Changes are happening already and we can identify and simulate those mechanisms and then look at what will happen next”.


"Russell, Joellen." The Biogeochemical Dynamics Laboratory: Joellen L. Russell Bio. Web. 2 Aug. 2014.

Goodman, Paul. "Joellen Russell." Message to the author. 6 Aug. 2014. E-mail.

Written by: Marisol Moya 

Edited by: Joellen Russell & Mike Bruck