Out to sea

From the Amazon to Antarctica, oceanographer Patricia Yager tracks climate change

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Out to sea

The bridge of the U.S. Researcher Icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer offers a serene evening view of the ice floes in the Amundsen Sea.

Photo by: Katherine Esswein

Patricia Yager studies how the climate is changing the ocean, how the ocean is responding, and how that relates back to the climate.

That’s pretty big-picture stuff. Luckily, Yager, associate professor in the Department of Marine Sciences and “Tish” to her friends, is good at thinking on a big-picture level.

When it comes to climate change and the ocean, “You can’t just study one little piece,” she says. “You have to have a team. You need all the pieces.”

But Yager doesn’t have just one team. She leads a Moore Foundation- and three National Science Foundation-funded research projects that look at carbon cycling, microbial ecology and microbial community structure in three different coastal regions of the world: Antarctica, the Arctic and the Amazon River.

She’s principal investigator of an international team of oceanographers and river scientists that studies carbon and nutrients flowing from the Amazon River to the Atlantic Ocean; she’s also the principal investigator in the Arctic, where scientists are studying one-celled organisms in the food web, taken from ocean samples collected near Barrow, Alaska.

And, last winter, she was chief of 46 scientists in coastal Antarctica, marking the beginning of the Amundsen Sea Polynya International Research Expedition (ASPIRE), which is jointly funded by the NSF and the Swedish Research Council.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to have three projects going,” she says. “It’s difficult for me since I’m literally going to the ends of the earth.”

Regardless of the end she’s in, she’s seeing the same thing: the ocean, which has the responsibility of absorbing a third of all human CO2 output, is not working the way it used to. And if that intake stops, CO2 stays in the atmosphere.

“It looks like the process is slowing down,” Yager says. “The ability of the ocean to help us out is shrinking.”

Trees and soil also absorb CO2, and planting more trees would help, she says. But the reality is that deforestation and the ocean’s slowing down of absorption leaves humanity with a big job: adapt. Yager wants to see what’s coming, so we can get ready for it.

If you look at the ice ages, you’ll see that the changes were linked to the solar cycle—but the solar cycle alone wasn’t enough to make the ice ages. You have to have something to act like an amplifier to take a little change and make it a big change. The solar cycle, then, acted like a trigger.

Just like human increases in atmospheric CO2 might be a trigger now.

This is where the Amundsen Sea polynya (puh-lin-yuh) becomes important.

Polynya, Russian for “pool,” is an area of open ocean surrounded by ice, existing either because wind is blowing ice away from the coast or because warm air or an upwelling of warmer water melts the ice away.

“In a world of white, here’s this patch of open water,” Yager says. “It’s a biological oasis, a hotspot.”

Think of it this way: If it’s sunny outside, a white shirt will reflect light and feel cooler than a dark shirt. Polar environments are white and reflect a lot of sunlight. When a polynya opens up, there’s now this patch of blue that will absorb light, and therefore be warmer. Sea ice melts fast in summer; imagine that polynya getting bigger, making a larger patch of warm, light-absorbing blue in the middle of all that white, light-reflecting white. Things begin changing, getting warmer. Even a small patch of melting ice leads to warmer temperatures and more melting.

“It’s a runaway train,” Yager says.

This particular polynya, located near the extremely fast-melting Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers, is unique. It’s filled with algae and krill, making it a feeding hotspot for wildlife.

“On a per area basis, (this one) is the most productive, greenest polynya,” Yager says. “We don’t really know why. There’s something interesting happening here.” In fact it was much greener, Yager says, than anywhere the team measured in the Amazon River Plume.

No one knew the polynya was so exciting until 2007, when the NSF invited Yager to join a group of American and Swedish scientists on a 42-day cruise between the southern tip of Chile and Antarctica’s McMurdo Base, which needed its shipping lanes opened by the Swedish Icebreaker Oden. The Amundsen Sea polynya was about halfway in between. The scientists didn’t know what they’d find, but it was a unique chance to investigate the rarely traveled South Pacific coast of Antarctica—that alone made it “a huge scientific opportunity,” she says. The polynya particularly piqued their interest, and they wanted to return and study it more.

So they did, in November 2008-January 2009, and again November 2010-January 2011. On their latest trip, Yager and the ASPIRE team—principal investigators, research professionals, collaborators, graduate students and other crew—boarded the U.S. Researcher Icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer in Punta Arenas, Chile, and headed toward the Amundsen Sea, where it was joined in late December by the Oden for a two-boat expedition. A blog (http://antarcticaspire.org) chronicled the scientists’ efforts in studying the climate-sensitive dynamics in the polynya and the sea ice ecosystem nearby, trying to understand how climate change will impact the area in general.

The blog captures the exciting moments, such as the realization that “preliminary results reveal that the phytoplankton bloom in the Amundsen Sea polynya exceeds all expectations,” Yager wrote in January. The blog also has sweet, personal moments—a Christmas Eve walkabout on an ice floe, which turned into playing football and Frisbee for hours on the frozen ice. Or the wacky team-building fun of a King Neptune party, which featured skits and songs, including an international version of Jingle Bells.

It was an experience Yager never dreamed possible when she was a child.

Growing up, Yager lived in the San Francisco Bay Area with her parents and two brothers, where the family spent a lot of time on the water, staying a week or two every summer at a beach house her grandparents rented. Yager was precocious and encouraged to explore science. By age 5, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. When she was 6, her grandfather gave her a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, which she thought was “really cool.”

When she was 13, her family moved to Princeton, N.J., which was her first introduction to an academic community. She felt at home and knew she’d attend an Ivy League school. As a high schooler in Seattle, when all of her friends planned on going to college in Washington, Yager chose Brown.

As a freshman pre-med student, she got her very first taste of that highly competitive world and realized she wasn’t all that interested in becoming a doctor. She found there was too much memorization of material required and not enough opportunity to ask “why” something was as it was.

“Christmas break involved some soul-searching,” she says.

She decided to take an oceanography class. On her first day, she had an epiphany.

Her professor, John Imbrie, was famous for discovering what triggered the timing of the ice ages. He told his students, “Every once in a while, one person in this class discovers they like it well enough to become an oceanographer.”

“I remember sitting there: ‘I didn’t know you could be an oceanographer,’” Yager recalls. “It was the first time I’d heard about the climate of the earth and how it affects oceans…talk about one college class changing your life!”

Yager got her B.S. from Brown’s Department of Geology in 1985, and received her M.S. and Ph.D. in 1988 and 1996 from the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography.

It took a while to bring her parents on board with her change in plans, mostly because they were unfamiliar with a career in research science.

But her parents, who live part-time in Seattle and part-time in Athens, do understand her drive, especially her father. In his 70s, he still works full time in real estate.

Yager describes her work ethic thus: “If I just put in one more hour!”

Of course, being a parent makes that work ethic a little complicated.

She met her husband, Steven Holland, a paleontologist and stratigrapher in UGA’s Department of Geology, when both were graduate students at the same marine lab in Washington state. Today, they have two sons, Zach, 9, and Alex, 7. Being away from her family while at sea is a constant struggle for Yager.

She spent the 1990s going to sea nearly every year for at least a month at a time. When her son Alex was 1, she went on one weeklong cruise, but otherwise, she took a seafaring break when her boys were very young.

The initial “cruise of opportunity” to the Amundsen Sea came when Alex was 3. It was a prospect both thrilling and unsettling. Going meant that she’d have to find her sea legs after being land bound for a time. It also meant that she’d leave on Thanksgiving Day, miss Christmas with her family, and return in January.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she says. But the family has found a way to make it work.When Yager goes to sea, her husband runs a smooth ship at home and remains extremely supportive of his wife’s career, she says. Her sons’ classmates always know where she is, and their teachers at Athens Montessori School have welcomed Yager as a guest to talk about her work.

“I think there is an element of ‘your mom does really cool stuff,’” says Yager. “It doesn’t make up for the fact that Mom is gone. It’s agonizing sometimes. On the other hand, if I were a man, no one would even think about this. And the fact that Steve is an amazing father gets lost a bit.”

Riding one of the world’s most powerful ice-breakers is not a typical sea cruise.

The Oden is broad, shaped like a whale. Rather than cut through ice with a pointy nose, it surges up and whomps down on the ice to break it.

“It does shake, rattle and roll,” Yager says.

The U.S. Icebreaker N.B. Palmer is better designed for the open-water work the team performed in the polynya. “It holds steady like a rock, even in the strong winds we get in Antarctica.”

The crew have watches, with normal sleeping hours, but the scientists work around the clock. The sun never sets in Antarctica in December so there’s no natural rhythm to the days.

“You work, work, work like crazy,” Yager says. “Then you crash for a few hours. And you get up… it’s a lot like having babies. Some people can handle it. Some can’t. They get punch drunk.”

In the Amazon, at least there’s the night—pitch-black sky filled with stars, phosphorescent fish and squid swimming alongside the ship—to offer relief. Antarctica offers relentless daytime. But sailing to Antarctica offers glimpses of seabirds like albatross, fulmars, petrels and prions; crabeater, Weddell, and leopard seals; and emperor, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins. And then there’s all that ice, glowing white against a backdrop of bright blue.

“There are very precious moments of beauty that keep you going,” Yager says.

She also keeps going because her work directly affects the fate of humanity on a changing planet. In the scientific community, there is no debate on whether climate change is real.

“We’ve known the basic science behind climate change for 115 years; even politically disinclined people (acknowledged) it,” she says. “It was not a partisan issue until very recently.”

She has witnessed climate change.

“I’ve been in these places 20 years or more and they’re changing,” she says. “We know what the natural cycle is, and it’s not enough. It doesn’t explain it… If we don’t understand it, we’ll be victims of it. We have to understand what’s coming. We have to start planning for adaptation and mitigation.”

To that end—as if there’s not enough on her plate—she’s the director of the Georgia Initiative for Climate and Society, sponsored by the UGA Office of the Vice President for Research.

“Climate connects us all,” she says. “We have to walk through it every day.”

—Mary Jessica Hammes is a freelance writer living in Athens.

Get More

To learn more about Yager’s research, go to http://alpha.marsci.uga.edu/directory/pyager.htm.