Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Natural History on the Big Screen – Feedback Loops: Albedo

Webinar: Natural History on the Big Screen – Feedback Loops: Albedo

Aired June 9, 2021

Juliana Olsson:

Hello everyone. It's five o'clock, so I'm going to get this started. I just wanted to say hi and welcome to today's conversation centered around the film, Climate Emergency Feedback Loops: Albedo, presented by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. My name is Juliana Olsson, I'm an exhibit writer and editor here at the museum, and I'll be moderating today's discussion. Tonight's program is part two out of the four part Feedback Loop series that we're hosting this summer. And these short films explore the various climate feedback loops around our forests, ocean and atmosphere. We're using them as launching points for conversations with leading climate scientists who will share their work and solutions for the future.

But tonight's program is also special because it's part of our World Ocean Week event lineup, celebrating World Ocean Day, which was yesterday, June 8th. This year, all of our programs, including this one, feature hope spots or areas around the World That Are Critical To The Health Of Our Ocean. You Can Visit Our World ocean week webpage for more of our programs, activities, videos, and virtual tours of our exhibits. A link will be sent out about that in the Q&A. And exciting news, you'll also be able to visit the Sant Ocean Hall in person starting on June 18th, because that's when the museum reopens. Woo.

For those of you who joined us for the previous Feedback Loops program, welcome back. If you missed the previous session about forests, that's okay. You can find the recording on our live video programs archive page, again, a link for that should be sent out in the Q&A. And we hope that you were able to watch the short film, Albedo, before tonight's discussion, but if not, we'll be sure to email you the link afterwards. More about links, if you haven't already signed up, we'll drop a link in the Q&A box for upcoming events in this series. And we'll send you a follow-up email after tonight's program with all that information as well. So don't fret. Speaking of Q&A, this is where you'll get to ask your questions to the panelists during the program and where we'll share any relevant links mentioned during the conversation. So the Q&A box should be located down at the bottom of your screen, bottom center of your Zoom interface. So if you can take a moment and locate it right now, go ahead and do that.

Before we get started a few housekeeping notes, this discussion also offers closed captioning, so you can turn them on or off whatever your preference, via the live transcript or CC button, which again should be at the bottom of the Zoom interface. Tonight's program will begin with a moderated conversation and then we'll follow with a chance to take your questions. But as you have questions at any point in the program, even early on, go ahead and submit them to the Q&A box. So even though you won't be able to see all the questions coming in, we can, and we will try to sort through as many as possible. And also, please let us know who your question is directed to. It could be to one of the panelists or to the whole group.

With that, let's get started. I would like to go ahead and introduce our panelists and invite them all on screen here. They will pop up in just a second. All right. Yay, we're all here. All right, I'm going to start by introducing Dr. Marika M. Holland. She's a senior scientist in the Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Her research is focused on the role of sea ice in the climate system, including long term sea ice change, sea ice predictability and polar climate variability. If you watched the movie, you might also recognize her from the film. She has extensive experience in using climate models to study climate variability and change. And she's been active in the development of improved sea ice models for climate simulations.

Dr. Holland has served as co-chair for the Polar Climate Working Group of the Community Earth System Model, whew. And chief scientist for the Community Earth System Model Project. She's Contributing Author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third, Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports, has contributed to numerous other assessments on the changing polar climate and is an author on over 100 peer reviewed publications. Dr. Holland is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society and she was awarded the International Arctic Science Committee medal in 2019. Welcome.

Our next panelist is Dr. Sarah Rosengard. She's an oceanographer and assistant professor of environmental chemistry at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After completing her Ph.D. At MIT Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she studied the carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean and the Amazon River Basin, which are two very different systems, she accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of British Columbia to pursue deeper interest in community engagement through research. While exploring the links between satellite imagery and Pacific salmon resources, she connected with the Arctic Eider Society, an Inuit charity based in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut? Okay, yay. Since 2018, she continues to work with their northern partners who designed The Indigenous Knowledge Social Network, SIKU. That's spelled S-I-K-U. Most recently, Sarah has started a position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she's thrilled to delve into the joint roles of science and art and making earth science education and research more accessible, equitable, and just. Welcome, Sarah.

And our last panelist, but not least, is Dr. Joellen Russell. She's an oceanographer, climate scientist and university distinguished professor at the University of Arizona. Professor Russell's research uses robot floats, supercomputers, and satellites to observe and predict the ocean's role in the climate and carbon cycle of the past, present and future. Professor Russell is the lead for the modeling theme of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling project, or SOCCOM, including its Southern Ocean Model Intercomparison Project. My goodness, all of these projects have long names. She currently serves as co-chair of the NOAA Science Advisory Board’s Climate Working Group, as an objective leader for the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research’s AntarcticClimate21, and on the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Community Earth System Model Advisory Board. Professor Russell is also one of the 14 scientists behind an amicus curiae brief supporting the plaintiff in the historic 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision on carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, et al. v. United States environmental Protection Agency.

Whew. I'm in such great company here. I'm sitting here going like, "Oh my gosh, do I even belong?" But to get it all started, I wanted to ask a question of all of you, to share a story about what inspires you in your work? Was there a pivotal moment in your career that got you interested in the impact of climate change? And whoever would like to go first?

Marika M. Holland:

I'll chime in. I'm the daughter of an oceanographer and so I actually was raised in a very scientific world. And my dad actually studied the role of the ocean in the climate system. So it's hard for me to think of a pivotal moment where I became concerned about this issue because it was just part of my upbringing. And my dad, he portrayed to me the fascination and the amazing aspects of our climate and how it works and how it varies and changes over time. So I always had this fascination of trying to figure out the puzzle of this really complicated system. But at the same time, he also shared with me things like the fact that we were impacting our climate, and that through burning fossil fuels, we were going to cause the climate to warm.

This was back in the 1970s that he was telling me this stuff, when I was a kid, but it made me realize that even individually we can have this big collective impact. I didn't know at the time that I'd study climate, that this would be my career. He instilled in me a love of physics and math and these things underpin our climate science. So it just naturally evolved that I moved into this field.

I would say that over time, the science has changed. I've been studying the climate for about 25 years or so and it's gone from this very academic exercise of trying to understand what's going to happen 50 or 100 years into the future to trying to understand the impacts we're having on the climate right now and how we're going to deal with that right now. And this has happened over the 25 years of my career. I think the things that inspired me originally were this fascinating and complicated system and trying to puzzle it out, and I like puzzles. But I think over time, my inspiration has changed, and now it's much more on how do we find solutions? How do we deal with these changes that are happening now, impacting us now, causing the forests in Colorado, where I live, to burn every year, that are going to affect my kids. I'll end it there, but great question, thank you.

Joellen Russell:

I didn't come from an academic background at all. I grew up in a fishing village on the Arctic Ocean, on the Chukchi Sea, actually up in Sarah's stomping grounds up in Alaska. And I knew really early that I wanted to know where the sea ice went at breakup. I couldn't understand, you couldn't go, you couldn't follow it, not in a kayak, not in a boat, because you could get crushed. And then you'd go. So I knew really early I wanted to do oceanography, I wanted to be an explorer, I wanted to go see, but the issue is they were telling you, the Inuit and older folks, the elders in the village were telling us, "This is not the way it's always been. This isn't right. This isn't the way it's always been." And I wanted to help. I'm like, "Well, we need to figure this out."

And now it's really simple, I have kids. I have kids. It's not fair that they won't have the same kind of amazing world that I have with all the biodiversity, with all the mystery and wonder of a Great Barrier Reef. They're losing things, the beetles in the pine forests, global warming has a destructive impact on things that we love. Things that are really dear to who we think we are as humans. And I'm terribly worried for my... I want to be a grandma someday and I don't want them to turn to me at some point and go, "Grandma. Grandma, why didn't you do something when we could still make a difference?" God, I just can't bear it. So Marika, if we have to lay down in the road, this is what we're going to have to do. Sarah, you too. And all of you watching, this is serious. It's time to mayday, mayday, mayday, the ship's got to turn right now.

Sarah Rosengard:

Yeah. A lot of Joellen and Marika's thoughts resonated with me. I grew up as pretty much a science nerd. I grew up in Queens and New York City and I was always thinking about pollution in our city growing up. And I went to a really good high school that had a very strong science program. So if any of my teachers as being this, thank you teachers. I really believe in education as being that early step to get us aware about how we are relating to our environment. But I think the one story that I can think of was when I was in university, my college also got me to leave the US and I did a study abroad program in the Brazilian Amazon. Very naive and I was doing a project in a community, they had us do an independent study project, so I visited a community that lives very close to mangroves on the estuary of the Amazon River, as it meets the Atlantic Ocean.

I was so naive, I needed people from the community to help me do this project as a student. So I went to one of the leaders of the community and spoke with her. And at first I was so surprised, she seemed like she didn't trust me. And then I said, I was just a student, I wasn't going in to do any research really, I was going in to learn. And then she took me under her arm. And for a few days we drank a lot of coffee, ate a lot of cake and talked to people all around the community about mangroves.

And although it didn't directly relate to climate change, as I became more and more involved in climate change in my research as I explored higher education, I always go back to that experience because it really put into perspective what I think is an important way to do science, which is to pay attention, like Joellen was saying, to the community and the relationship between yourself as an academic and the community. That woman that I met in Brazil was telling me that scientists take so much resources from communities to learn from them. But community knowledge is so important for solving climate change challenges. So that story was very pivotal for me because it just, as I became more and more scientists, it just always reminded me to remember that I have an impact on communities in what I do and what it means to really work together with communities in an equitable way. That leads to what I ended up focusing on later on, I think, which is why I think back to that story a lot, I guess.

Juliana Olsson:

Thank you. Yeah. And I love all the varied responses too. The next question that we have is for you, Marika. In the film, you talked about the first climate models being developed in the 1970s. And could you tell us a little bit more about how modeling has changed since then and how models are now being used, particularly with regard to melting sea ice?

Marika M. Holland:

Yeah. I just want to start out by saying the models that were developed in the 1970s were amazing. It was amazing what they could do at the time with the computing resources they had and the tools they had available. It's incredible. And these models basically solve the equations that describe the physics, especially in the 1970s, are really just physics based, the physical laws of our climate system. And the models in the 1970s actually predicted things that have now happened, that have now come to pass. Even though those models were much simpler than what we have now, they were skillful. They predicted that the Arctic would warm more than the rest of the globe in response to rising greenhouse gases. And it would do so because there are these reinforcing positive feedbacks, which is what this movie is about, in the Arctic system that are unique to these icy cold regions. So those models were amazing for their time.

But we have learned a lot since then, we have had a revolution in computing infrastructure and computing resources, which means that our climate models now, they're still based on physics, they still solve those same equations, but they have many more details. And they are able to simulate things that those earlier models just weren't able to do. So for example, in sea ice. Sea ice, these early models, sea ice, which is the ice that floats on ocean surfaces, forms from ocean waters, that ice was just a white sheet in polar regions. It didn't move in response to winds and ocean currents. It had very little seasonal evolution in terms of its surface reflectivity. All of these things were very simple. And those things now, first, we understand them better, because of field data, satellite data, theory. And we also now have the computing resources to incorporate that knowledge into our computers and our computer models.

So now our ice moves in response to winds and ocean currents. It has a varied surface reflectivity that responds to things like melt puddles on the surface of the ice, which actually are really important, even though they're are these really small features in the sea ice. We actually now simulate biology in our sea ice and how that biology impacts and affects the carbon cycle. I mean, so we've had this revolution in how we simulate our climate system in these models. And it allows us to ask new questions. It allows us to ask what is the role of sea ice in the biological system, in marine ecosystems? We can investigate those questions now with these models. And in combination with field observations and other things, we can start to understand and unravel those aspects of the system.

That's just for sea ice, these models have improved across the board. It's not just sea ice. And that's important because all these things interact. The clouds in these models have improved dramatically. That's important, because that affects how much sunlight the sea ice receives. So they're really complicated interacting systems. We're constantly improving them. We're constantly learning from them and using them in interesting ways. But yeah, it's amazing, I think, where we are now, but we wouldn't have been here without all that work that these amazing scientists did back in the 1970s, honestly.

Juliana Olsson:

Yeah. Wow. I mean, yeah, we could do a whole program just on the modeling. I don't know if this ties into all of the modeling work, but I just know 2020 might have been a really challenging year for all of you to do research, especially since Arctic research is so field work heavy. So I just wanted to know how the pandemic affected your ability to gather data or even disseminate data or make these sorts of models or work with the communities that you normally work with? This is a question for all of you. Anyone can feel free to chime in.

Sarah Rosengard:

Yeah. I heard Marika talk about field measurements and using them to validate models and stuff. So 2020 was a year where I saw a lot of trips up north and to other places canceled, so it was really challenging. But I do have some optimistic things that I wanted to share. As Juliana said in the introduction, until I started at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was working with a nonprofit based in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, the Arctic Eider Society. And we were working together on an app, a social network created by Inuit communities, particularly in Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic, called SIKU, which means sea ice in Inuktitut.

And the app brings together a lot of indigenous knowledge about how the environment is changing, and just indigenous knowledge of the land and the sea ice. But it combines it or brings it together with a lot of the amazing work that Marika and Joellen are doing in understanding ocean dynamics and all that modeling work too, and satellite imagery and stuff like that. But with every step of the process with developing the app, it requires... the way that we evolve is by having conversations with communities, talking with them about, "Okay, how is this looking? What else is needed? What's missing? What context is missing? What we can do to equip for the app to be a resource for climate change adaptation and monitoring." Because we do all these conversations face to face, that was really hard with the pandemic, all those trips got canceled.

But I feel like something good happened, which was that we started instead working with community leaders and especially a lot of youth in communities that started leading those conversations instead of people like me. I didn't grow up there and I don't live there. So instead of me traveling there to lead those discussions, we had more community members and youth leading those discussions and driving those discussions, which is ultimately what we want anyways. It's not for me to do that. So I do think that the pandemic made us progress a lot more in that direction to make things, community driven, which, as you may know, is what I'm super passionate about. And actually it lowered our carbon emissions too, because I wasn't flying up north. I really missed the face to face, there's so much you get from that, but I do feel like we found some good workarounds and making things come from the communities rather than from outside.

Juliana Olsson:

And Joellen, how about you? How was your research impacted?

Joellen Russell:

Well, there's a lot of good news and some bad news about a pandemic year like we had. And I mean, beyond the tragedy of how many people are lost and how expensive it was and how hard it was on us home with our kids, trying to do our science while Zoom schooling. That was tough. But on the science side, I work with robot floats, supercomputers, and satellites, and all of those were working during pandemic. Argo floats are a robot float that basically parks down at a thousand meters, it's about 10 football fields down. And it drops down to 2,000 meters every 10 days and then makes a full profile of measurements to the surface and beams back by an Iridium satellite. And we put that online on the web immediately. Within two hours, it's available to the world, this data that was taken from a deep dark profile of measurements around Antarctica under the sea ice.

No, no, it's crazy. These aren't just temperature and salinity, which is great. The salinity of the ocean is changing. So is the heat. Most of the heat in the Earth's system actually has not accumulated in our atmosphere. Everybody's like, "Oh, well, the atmosphere only goes up some years." I'm like, "Well, most years these days." But the ocean goes up every year because it accommodates 93%. We know from first Radiation Budget Experiment, what comes in and what goes out for the energy balance of the planet. It's a series of satellites that whizzes around the Earth. And what ERBE tells us, Earth's Radiation Budget Experiment, is that every year about the same comes in and every year less gets out. And most of that is accommodated in the ocean, 90% plus.

So what we're doing with robot floats is we've got them out there, and anybody can go look at this data, anybody, there are thousands of floats out there just doing the temperature and salinity. But I work with particular kind of floats, they measure things like pH, because of course we are acidifying the ocean. We are literally titrating our ocean with a weak acid called carbonic acid. Because when CO2 that comes out of anybody's tailpipe, any gas-burning car, basically any of that fossil fuel, basically one out of eight molecules that comes out of your tailpipe, goes into the ocean around Antarctica within a year. One out of eight. And that's only part of the ocean, that's about half the ocean uptake is around Antarctica. So we've deployed about 200 floats around Antarctica. They last about five years. They do a profile every 10 days. And so they were still out there working.

Now, the hard part is the lab, the people making the floats, the people, making the sensors, they had to socially distance. The labs aren't that big, so you could basically only have one, maybe two people in the lab at the time. So in order to keep producing the floats, they had to work around the clock. This meant people taking the graveyard shift, working alone in the dark by themselves during pandemic. It was hard. These are climate heroes. They really are. Because you couldn't expect them to do this, but they did it because they didn't want us to miss a measurement. We had only a limited number of cruises that could go out at all because of COVID protocols, et cetera. When we got a cruise that went out, we had to make sure we got as many floats onto that ship so that they could be deployed and making these measurements for us. So it was tough. COVID was really hard on the people that make our sensors, who calibrate them, the people who had to use COVID protocols to get to the ship. I mean, it took weeks and weeks extra just waiting to get on the ship so that then you could deploy them.

The good news is the satellites were up, the floats were in, and the models were running. We did extraordinary work under extraordinary conditions and will keep doing it. Because carbon accounting has become one of the things that is required. About 30% of all the carbon emitted goes in into the ocean. About half of that goes in around Antarctica. And it's 72% of your surface. So we monitor the atmosphere through atmospheric measurements, a lot of which are based at our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And then we combine that with measurements from our floats and we do a massive data simulation to try and actually infer where the emissions are from our land based sources. That's a top down constraint on what, the pollution that we're dumping into our atmosphere. And just so everybody knows, since 2007, the Supreme Court ruled the carbon dioxide is absolutely covered under the Clean Air Act as a pollutant. They said the statute is unambiguous. So we're stuck with this and yes, the work kept on.

Juliana Olsson:

Marika, how about you? Just-

Marika M. Holland:

Yeah. So just-

Juliana Olsson:

... what was this year like for your research?

Marika M. Holland:

... Yeah, I mean, as Joellen said, the satellites were still taking awesome measurements and our climate models were still running and these autonomous floats are amazing. And so data is still coming in. But I was involved in the MOSAiC Field Campaign, which was a year long field campaign that occurred in the Arctic. And I wasn't going on MOSAiC. I should clarify, I wasn't actually going out to the ship, but I do work very closely with observers and I'm on a project where we had someone on MOSAiC every leg of the field campaign. So this is a historic effort, this MOSAiC Field Campaign, it took 10 years to plan, it involved 20 or so nations, it was hundreds of scientists. So even in the best of times, it's challenging to do this kind of science and to take these on-the-ground measurements that we really do need to validate our satellite remote sensing and our climate models and other things.

MOSAiC started in the fall of 2019. Everything was good. Staff and scientists were being rotated off the ship every couple months or so. And then in spring, the pandemic hit. And so it threw a wrench into everything. And of course, people on the ship were safe. They'd been out there for several months. And so there wasn't any concern about COVID outbreak on the ship. But there was a concern about rotating staff and supplies and perhaps exposing people that were going to be in this incredibly remote location at the top of our world to COVID. And this is as remote as you get, so medical infrastructure is not really a thing you can rely on there. But I think the amazing thing, people ended up having to spend much more time on the ship than they expected. This was in the midst of a global pandemic where they were worried about their families at home. I mean, it was a very challenging situation, but people came together and there was international cooperation and solutions were found to actually resupply the ship and the field campaign went on.

It actually ended in October of 2020, they were able to transition people after some very complicated logistics on and off the ship. And we now have an amazing data set that we're digging into to understand sea ice and how it interacts with the atmosphere above and the ocean below and how we encapsulate that knowledge and put into our climate models. And so I think Joellen's message and Sarah's message that the science goes on, the cooperation goes on and you find creative ways to deal with these challenges. I think that's what we've done this year. And that's great.

Juliana Olsson:

Yeah. Well, speaking of sea ice, and actually we're always speaking of sea ice on this program, we got a question from Brian, and this is for all of you, "Is it possible to create synthetic ice with holes for sea life, for the purpose of reflectivity?" So this goes back to the actual Albedo feedback loops, how do we increase the reflection?

Marika M. Holland:

People have proposed things and there have been geoengineering related to sea ice efforts, or things proposed. I'd say synthetic sea ice would be challenging to represent. And sea ice, its reflectivity is really important, but it plays other very important roles in the climate system. One of those is that it actually, it transports water in the system. So it plays a very important role in the hydrologic cycle. So we need the sea ice to do these other roles that they play in the climate system as well.

One of the things that's been proposed to increase the reflectivity of the existing sea ice is actually to put these micro silicone beads on the surface of the ice. That would mean that even if the ice is melting, it's reflectivity stays high. I think it's a proposal. Scientists are thinking about whether this would work. It's challenging because the ice does melt out naturally. So whether there's silicone beads entering the ocean could influence ocean ecosystems and the challenges or consequences that might occur with that. It's difficult to think through all these possible repercussions. And so I think this is an active area of scientific research, trying to think about ways we can geoengineer our way out of this problem. I personally feel like the simplest solution is to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. And ultimately that-

Joellen Russell:

It's not just simpler. It's cheaper. Let's talk about the fact that just not burning it is cheaper. Yes, there are many things we could do, but most of them have unintended consequences that are scary to climate scientists because we know how coupled, how many feedbacks there are in this system. Ah, you break it, you bought it is not the thing to say about the only planet that we've ever found life on. This is it for us. This is our home. Burn it down and we're in trouble. Marika's absolutely right, you can do this. Whether or not you should is... Personally, and this is just my professional opinion, we should be cutting emissions. I personally want to go test drive one of those Ford F-150 Lightnings. I was like, "Hey, an F-150, that I can charge." No fossil fuels. We, in Arizona, have this nuclear power plant called Palo Verde, and it provides 43% of our electricity all by itself, drinking toilet water from Phoenix in the desert, that's it, by itself. And it's not bigger than the size of a Walmart and its parking lot. That's all there is just out in the middle of the desert, no trouble, just toilet water.

We can do this. We can do this. I think before we do geoengineering that could break things, meaning there are consequences, meaning everyone says, "Well, let's just do that sulfate seeding thing." I'm like, "We ran a bunch of these experiments and they shift the jets, the actual westerly jet moves." So if you'd really like to tell all the farmers in Montana that, "Hey, no crops for you, buddy, because it's never going to rain there again." Or how about telling the Chinese, "No, no, no, no, rice patties? No, that can't work anymore. We need to move this jet for you." I don't think those are reasonable. I think we need to just hurry up and decarbonize.

Just to remind everybody, we've cut our emissions here in the United States by over 18%, very nearly 20%. And we did it without any major new regulation, just people making wise decisions, companies making wise decisions and being more efficient and saving a buck while they were at it. This is not actually that hard. The personal decisions, the not flying, blah, blah, blah, personally, I always like to say, if it's vintage, you don't get the carbon hit. Seriously. New to you, used, however you want to put it recycle, reuse, reduce your carbon, seriously. But we do need to get organized. We need to actually decarbonize our power sources. We need to do some really big lifting in those areas. Marika's... I saw her hesitating.

Juliana Olsson:

Joellen, real quick-

Joellen Russell:

She's much nicer than I am.

Juliana Olsson:

... Joellen, real quick, because I think we're going to get so many questions about what are the solutions? And we're definitely goin g to have a chance to talk about that, but I wanted to get Sarah's input on Brian's question... or actually at this point we have probably moved on to the next question, which is about World Ocean Day, supporting the 30 by 30 Initiative. That's a movement to protect 30% of the global oceans by the year 2030. And so this is just really a question of how do we see the projection of the Arctic contributing to this network of globally connected ocean areas? So how does protecting the Arctic affect the rest of the global ocean? I just wanted to get us to talk about that a little bit and then we'll go back into the solutions.

Sarah Rosengard:

Yeah, maybe to define what protection of the Arctic might mean, I'm not only thinking about the ice and the heat exchange and the movement of greenhouse gases that Marika and Joellen were talking about, but I'm also thinking about the phytoplankton at the base of the food chain and the crustaceans, the fish and marine mammals and terrestrial mammals that depend on those plankton. And then of course all the different people that depend on this food chain in the Arctic. And then it also, when I think about marine protected areas in the Arctic, I think about the non-native species that are expanding their ranges as the temperature of the waters changes and as more ship traffic coming through Arctic waters. So I think there's a lot of lessons that we can learn about protecting the Arctic. It is a relatively enclosed... Well, Marika and Joellen may be be able to comment on this too, but it's a fairly closed basin and these marine resources in the basin are used by many different nations, many different countries and many different indigenous communities.

And so I do think that when we talk about protecting all these different Marine resources, it has to be informed by the people who live there. For example, protected areas might mean limiting the amount of harvesting of narwhals or other types of wildlife that live in the Arctic Ocean. But we have to remember that harvesting and hunting is part of food security and knowledge transfer for people who live on the sea ice. And so I think because of that, it's not actually an easy question to answer. It's not just about saying no more harvesting or putting just these limits on how many marine animals that we can take out of the system, because the marine animals are very embedded in the people who have lived there for generations. And so I think we can probably learn from the Arctic and how people can work together to form these decisions that will still protect their livelihoods. I think we can learn from them and apply that to other coastal communities in other parts of the world. I can see that happening.

Juliana Olsson:

On a related note, this was actually a question from Megan about that, just how is this trust and partnership being cultivated, especially with your work, Sarah, in order to do exactly what you were just talking about, working with local communities, especially in the Arctic?

Sarah Rosengard:

Well, the way to answer that is... This app that we work on called SIKU every form of knowledge that is shared on it is owned by the person who shares it. So it's largely being used by indigenous communities. And so the indigenous people who use the app, they retain their ownership over that archive of knowledge. And so no one else can use it without their permission. And so they can work with other community members to innovate their own solutions with that knowledge, with their own knowledge of the changing environment. I think that's the first thing, establishing sovereignty in the data that's there. And having the ownership of the data be in the people who live there. I think that first step is necessary to establish trust.

Yeah, I think that if you are a scientist going there and say that you will take the knowledge and do what you want with it and not give it back, and hopefully most scientists are not like this, but I'm thinking of the extreme negative example, that would not be trust building. But if you go there with an open mind, with the idea to have a conversation that goes both ways and you really respect that the knowledge is being owned by the producer of that knowledge and you have this great privilege of being able to learn from it, I think that is where the trust starts. And it's really an ownership thing to begin with I think.

Juliana Olsson:

That was great. Thank you so much. Circling back to the other question about how protecting the Arctic in particular affects the rest of the global ocean? I just wanted to get some more quick input on that from Marika and Joellen? Either one of you. Marika, do you want to go first, on how protecting the Arctic and marine protected areas in the Arctic affect the global ocean and affect this effort to protect 30% of the global ocean in nine years?

Marika M. Holland:

... Yeah. I mean, think the Arctic is really unique. It's incredibly vulnerable to climate change because of these positive self-reinforcing feedbacks that happen in the Arctic region. The biology is unique there. I mean we have ice algae all the way up to polar bears. Those things don't exist outside of polar regions, right? I think in terms of thinking about protecting the global diversity of biology on our planet, the Arctic plays a critical role. There are species there that you cannot find anywhere else. Protecting the oceans is the way to protect that diversity. The Arctic Ocean also plays a really important role in the global climate system. It does exchange a lot of fresh water. The Arctic is very fresh at the surface compared to other oceans, and that water is transported into the North Atlantic and it affects the North Atlantic as well. I think there's all sorts of reasons that protecting the Arctic is important. If we're thinking about the global ocean system.

I do think marine protected areas are a very important way to do that and they play a very important role. I think the other global aspect that connects all these marine protected areas is that they're all being impacted by climate change. Climate change is a global issue. It is not an Arctic issue, it's not a tropical issue, it's a global issue. And so some of the things that we need to do to combat that global issue will help the Arctic and they will help the rest of the globe. And again, it gets back to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That's really the key. I think marine protected areas are a very important piece of this, and we need to try and understand where are the most vulnerable places of our world's oceans and how do we protect them? And how do we do that in an equitable way, as Sarah was saying? But the Arctic has very much a role to play in the global picture.

Joellen Russell:

It's a particularly important area simply because it's entirely populated. We have Indigenous people circum-Arctic. That's not true in Antarctica at the other end of the world. It is a relatively isolated basin and it's going to be tough because of course the U.S. Only has a certain amount of coastline in the Arctic, as a compared to Russia or Canada or even Norway. So these are big issues. It's going to be tough. And I'll also say that marine protected areas are essential because it's not just about protecting it because we don't want to allow harvesting, it's if you want harvesting, you need to protect the nurseries. You need to protect those critical ecosystems and the services they provide that allow larval phase organisms, little teeny weeny ones that can't swim yet, you have to have a place for them to not be predated on, right? And if you drag your lines through it, if you clean your ballast tanks right offshore, these are hugely damaging human impacts.

And then there's just straight up harvesting where you take all the big fish out of a particular ecosystem. Most of the evidence, and some of it's from right off here off Baja, where Mexico has done an amazing job with some of its mangrove forest on the Pacific coast. And when they did that, the harvest went up. Because by protecting a relatively small amount of ocean, you actually allowed things to grow even bigger. It is so, so important that we set these up wisely, that we think very hard about how these can be win-win, right? You're not restricting people from visiting. You're restricting them from cleaning their ballast tanks or harvesting or harassing the marine mammals. You're trying to make it so that they have more to eat so that we have more to eat. Because 3 billion people on planet Earth currently depend on marine sources of protein, right? 3 billion. That's a lot of people.

So it has to be done in conjunction because we're trying to avoid the one-two punch of environmental degradation and ocean degradation from climate change, combined with direct impacts from development, harvesting and other human activities. You got to combine these two.

And I'll just point out, I have colleagues at Scripps who once called the Arctic, the museum of water masses. It mixes really slowly and that slow mixing means you dump it, the solution almost always to pollution is dilution. But it doesn't dilute well or easily in the Arctic because it circulates so slowly. It is dangerous. I mean, now that the Northwest Passage is basically open due to climate change, there are a lot of hazards here. So marine protected areas are absolutely a boon, both to humans and the environment. And we should do as much careful planning and judicious... If you put it out in the middle of the ocean desert, it's not going to help anybody. But if you put it where the nurseries are, we could actually... When I was little and my parents took me to California coast and there were very few whales going up and down the California current highway. But we went camping out at Patricks Point just a couple of years ago with the kids right before COVID, and there were whales everywhere. They're recovering. Not all species, but many of the whale species are recovering now because we took our foot off the gas pedal. And it was amazing.

Juliana Olsson:

Yeah, on those lines, we're almost 10 minutes towards the end, so I wanted to focus now on solutions, which I know is a big thing that all of our audience is interested in, I know you guys are interested in it. And just talk about solutions that we see for the future and takeaways that you can offer to the audience on what you see being done. And that could be solutions of everything of communication. So how are you getting people who are, I don't know, dragging their feet on the climate emergency to understand that this is an emergency and they need to get on board? It could be focusing on carbon accounting, latest findings from the IPCC report, anything like that. This is the free-for-all solutions time. Anyone feel free to take it away.

Sarah Rosengard:

Yeah, I can start. And maybe you'll guess some of the things I'll say if you know my personality a little bit after these 45 minutes. Yeah, I just want to highlight, I guess that most carbon emissions don't come from Arctic communities. Most plastics pollution is not from Arctic communities. Most organic pollutants don't come from Arctic communities. And yet we see the concentration of plastics and pollutants there and we see what you would call polar amplification of climate change in the Arctic too. Just to me, I just think that's so unfair that the communities that are dealing with the fastest, most dramatic changes in environmental change are not even the primary contributors, the primary drivers of this change. I see that as maybe what you would call an environmental justice issue and an environmental injustice.

For me, there are loads of solutions. And so I think there's lots of solutions out there about carbon emissions and the other, I think maybe can talk about that. But I guess I just want to say that, when I think of the solution and when I think of what sustainability should mean, it means undoing that injustice. And so that's all the things I said, when we talk about MPAs, they should be informed by communities. And so similarly, going into the future, I think we could maybe challenge ourselves as scientists and think about ways to make science more driven by community questions as well. Just having that be more part of it. I really believe in peer science research and in the power of academic institutions, I just sometimes wonder what questions aren't being asked? Because I didn't take the time to talk to people in my field site or something like that. So when I think of future solutions, I really see more of this engagement between the academic institution and the people, the community.

And I would like to explore that with art and science actually. I talk about this with my students, who I know some of them are here, and with colleagues at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I would like to explore how art can help with that engagement process. How maybe the arts can help scientists listen to communities. And how it can help communities listen to scientists, how it can be that catalyst. How art can change the narrative of environmental change, making maybe more people realize that these environments that are changing are not devoid of humans that live there, that live on the land and stuff like that. So I see solutions in just changing the ways that we ask questions. And I see some solutions in the world of art and design too. I just am exploring that more, so maybe check in with me in a few years.

Juliana Olsson:

Excellent. Any other solutions people want to talk?

Marika M. Holland:

Well, I think what Sarah was saying about art, I mean, art has the ability to inspire people. And I think we need to inspire people to change. And I think there's probably a lot of people listening, there's a lot of people in my community who are scared about this and scared about what's going on and scared about what we predict for the future. I think we need to inspire people to act. And there are solutions. I think that's the good message is that there are solutions. There are technological innovations. There are business solutions. There's economic solutions. We need all these people working together to bring those changes and bring these solutions to fruition.

But in order to do that, we need people to have the will to do that. Because it's hard. I mean, we need to decarbonize our entire society and it touches every piece of our society. So we need to inspire people to act. And I think there's ways to do that that are things that maybe haven't been done very well or done very comprehensively. And I think art is one of those ways to inspire people to act. I mean, we all care about our children, right? We all need to think about the world they're going to inherit. I mean, I think that's a message that crosses political lines. We all care about our children. And if we want them to have the amazing, beautiful world that we have, we need to act now, but we need to get that message out to people. And I think in order to do that, we need to work together. So we need scientists working with artists, working with economists, working with technological innovators to make this happen.

Juliana Olsson:

And Joellen, this would be a great place to learn a little bit more about carbon accounting. Because I know you started talking about that and I'm sorry that we shunted it towards the end, but this way we get to learn a little bit more about these actual...

Joellen Russell:

The reason to do carbon accounting from the top down is so that we have constraints on our partners, the other nations that are also emitting. The U.S. is actually on the steepest reduction, the steepest decarbonization pathway in the world, much actually faster than the EU at the moment. Germany should really turn those coal fire plants back off. It's interesting, it's important. And we do this because the social scientists tell us that if they put an insert in your electric bill that says how you're doing relative to the people in your neighborhood, you will cut your use. You will cut your use, even though nobody's making you, there's no rule you have to, but you will because you're competitive and you don't want to be shown up. It's a sort of name and shame game. They're not even naming you, but you want to win. And you like to save a buck. Who likes to pay a gas bill? I sure hate it.

Seriously, this is why we do carbon accounting is so that we can actually point the finger at all of the bad actors who are dumping into our atmosphere. We don't want the tragedy of the commons where nobody can tell whose sheep it is that ate all the grass. Instead, we want to basically tag up all those sheep and say, "Ooh. Ooh, look, there's an awful lot of orange sheep out there. There's a lot of purple sheep out there. Boy, don't you think you should cut that?" And as the United States, as a traditional large emitter it, and also a big innovator, a big believer in science, this is our opportunity. And let's just say it's prosperity and innovation too. I want my kids to have opportunities for great jobs and a clean environment with great air quality and not so hot, right? So all of these things go together.

I actually work with Katharine Hayhoe as part of a group called Science Moms. You can find us at, but we basically are a bunch of climate scientists who are working together to try and get the message out. And this morning I was on with Amber Sullins at Good Morning Arizona as their climate commentator. She's the weather person and I do the climate implications. Because we found out yesterday that the carbon dioxide just hit a record level that we've ever observed. And the paleo-climate scientists are telling us that it's the highest it's been in 3 million years, since before humans were humans, right? We've done this, we've terraformed, or we are terraforming our planet and we don't know what it's going to look like. And every single species in the ocean that can move, wiggle, migrate in any way, the new data is telling us that they are going deeper and polar to try and avoid the heat.

I know, because we're all taking our kids and going, "Boy, mom, is it cooler up there in Montana? Because boy, we need a break from down here in Arizona where it's already 102." So this is important, solutions are there. It contributes to our economy. It saves us money and it gives our children and my potential grandchildren, the world that they deserve, right? I want them to see the Great Barrier Reef and my friend, Terry Hughes, carbon coral scientist, par extraordinaire in Australia, he broke down in tears on the BBC because they asked him what the outlook was for the Great Barrier Reef. And in 2016, 2017, there were mass bleaching events. And in 2020 it happened again. And he just... it's grief. Let's prevent this. Let's keep it in the ground. Let's move smartly to provide our kids with the high tech jobs, the better air quality and the cheaper, better, longer life that comes from less carbon fuel.

Juliana Olsson:

Well, with that, we've got one minute left. I wanted to take this time to thank everyone for all of the amazing questions that got posted it in the Q&A and we tried to weave them in, but I know we didn't get to all of them. And I also want to thank the panelists for taking the time to have such in-depth responses and such a great conversation. In the Q&A, there should be a bunch of links for our video archive page, our events webpages, the e-news sign up, all of that good stuff so that you can join us for the next session. But with that, I think that we've wrapped up this Albedo feedback loop conversation. I thank everyone for joining. And as always, if you have any other questions, you can always email the NMNH organizers and we will see you for the next session.

Marika M. Holland:

Thanks everyone.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar aired June 9, 2021, as part of the four-part virtual series, "Natural History on the Big Screen: Feedback Loops," which took place monthly from May to August, 2021. Watch a recording in the player above.


Watch a discussion of the short film, "Feedback Loops: Albedo," with Joellen Russell (Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair of Integrative Science and Professor at the University of Arizona in the Department of Geosciences); Sarah Zhou Rosengard (Assistant Professor of Environmental Chemistry, School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Marika Holland (Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research).

Moderator: Juliana Olsson, Exhibit Writer and Editor, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

This program was also part of the National Museum of Natural History’s celebration of World Ocean Day focusing on Hope Spots, places that are critical to the health of our ocean around the globe.

About the Film

The reflectivity of snow and ice at the poles, known as the albedo effect, is one of Earth’s most important cooling mechanisms. But global warming has reduced this reflectivity drastically, setting off a dangerous warming loop: As more Arctic ice and snow melt, the albedo effect decreases, further warming the Arctic and melting more ice and snow. The volume of Arctic ice has already shrunk 75 percent In the past 40 years, and scientists predict the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free during the summer months by the end of the century.

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