Out to sea

From the Amazon to Antarctica, UGA professor Patricia Yager tracks climate change through her work as an oceanographer. She studies how the climate is changing the ocean, how the ocean is responding and how that relates back to the climate.

Yager, an associate professor in the department of marine sciences 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 three National Science Foundation-funded research projects that look at carbon cycling, microbial ecology and microbial community structure in three different parts of the world: Antarctica, the coastal Arctic, and the Amazon River.

She’s principal investigator of an international team of oceanographers and river scientists who study organic matter 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 samples at the Barrow, Alaska Arctic Science Consortium. And, last winter, she was chief of 46 scientists in coastal Antarctica, marking the beginning of the Amundsen Sea Polynya International Research Expedition, 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 her location, she’s seeing the same thing: the ocean, which has the responsibility of absorbing a third of all 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 society can get ready for it.

Back home, she’s the director of the Georgia Initiative for Climate and Society, a UGA Office of the Vice President for Research initiative to improve understanding of climate variability and change, and strategies to prepare and respond.