Caltech professor talks climate change at New England Aquarium

Dr. Jess Adkins, chemical oceanographer and Smits family professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at the California Institute of Technology, discussed carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in his lecture on Oct. 21, “The Ocean’s Natural Way to Stop Climate Change.” 

The Lorenz Center in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the New England Aquarium presented the in-person event as part of the John Carlson Lecture Series and the New England Aquarium Lecture Series, with support from the Lowell Institute. 

Chemical oceanographer Adkins’ research focuses on metals as environmental tracers, the percentage of deep ocean circulation and its relationship to processes of rapid climate change. 

Adkins earned his Ph.D. in chemical oceanography, paleoclimatology and geochemistry at the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Haverford College. In 2000, Adkins joined the faculty of Caltech.

According to Adkins, the human race is conducting an unprecedented experiment with the use of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is warming the planet, and scientists do not know what will happen. He argued that even if the economy is electrified and fossil fuels are faded out, humanity must find ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Reduced CO2 emissions alone are no longer sufficient, Adkins said. 

In the lecture, Adkins explored how a project that began with a basic science question: “How quickly do corals dissolve when the ocean acidifies?” evolved into a potential method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale.

“We are changing the carbon cycle by burning fossil fuels, which sends more carbon into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. Extra greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are causing Earth to warm,” Adkins said. 

Adkins also explored the relationship between ocean currents and climate change, specifically whether ocean currents, including the ocean conveyor belt, play a significant role in determining how the ocean distributes heat energy throughout the planet, thereby regulating and stabilizing climate patterns.

“Surface ocean currents can occur on both a local and global scale and are typically driven by wind (that is usually caused by the effects of climate change), resulting in horizontal and vertical water movement. Rip currents, longshore currents, and tidal currents are examples of local, short-term horizontal surface currents,” Adkins said.