McKinley, expert in ocean-carbon interplay and climate change, named Bryson Professor

March 29, 2016

By Rachael Lallensack

For Galen McKinley, big questions about the Earth’s climate can be found in the oceans. Chipping away at what we don't yet know about the water that covers nearly three-quarters of the planet has become her work’s focus.

McKinley, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, studies the intricacies of the carbon cycle in the world’s oceans, and the role these waters play in regulating our planet’s temperature. 

In recognition of this critical research, McKinley was recently named the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research’s next Bryson Professor, an appointment that will begin in fall 2016.

The professorship is named for Reid Bryson, founder of UW-Madison’s meteorology department, renamed atmospheric and oceanic sciences in 1994, and the Center for Climatic Research, and the first director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The professorship, founded in 1993 with the support of an anonymous donor, carries forth Bryson’s legacy of advancing socially relevant research, teaching and public service. He was especially well known for integrating environmental and climate science and exploring their connections to humans.

McKinley’s research follows that model, focusing on the oceans’ role in the global carbon cycle and how humans are driving change at the planetary scale.

The oceans have absorbed 41 percent of the carbon that humans have emitted into the atmosphere from industrial activities such as burning fossil fuels. This carbon storage slows the rate of climate change, but a crucial question is, How efficiently can the oceans continue to absorb rising carbon emissions amidst environmental variability?

"With this professorship, I can support graduate students to study how the global oceans are modulating climate change, and also how they’re changing in response to climate change,” McKinley explains. “It is critical to understand how this carbon sink works and how it is changing as the climate warms.”

McKinley’s most recent study, published in Nature in February, outlined an advanced modeling system for quantifying natural variability in the ocean carbon sink and separating this from human-driven change over the next 100 years.  

McKinley also spends significant time advising the Federal Government on a variety of issues, from planning investments in carbon cycle science that will allow long-term monitoring of climate change treaties, to climate change impacts on Defense Department infrastructure and operations, to science needs for Great Lakes sustainability.

Many of McKinley’s findings and models can also be applied to the Great Lakes.

“Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area. It's the size of the state of South Carolina,” she explains. “These enormous features on our landscape are physically, chemically and biological quite similar to the oceans. They are small oceans.” 

Climate change is one of many anthropogenic stressors seen in the Great Lakes, combined with acidification and invasive species such as quagga mussels. These effects are not evenly distributed across the Great Lakes, so McKinley is exploring how lake circulation and mixing modulate human-caused impacts – issues that are not yet adequately understood in the region.

“I think it’s really neat to bring tools and techniques from the ocean and modeling of the carbon cycle to help us better understand the Great Lakes,” she says. “This really hadn't been done before in the Great Lakes .”

Forging this connection between the oceans and the Great Lakes is a valuable contribution to climate science, according to Jack Williams, director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, who describes McKinley as a “world-class carbon-cycle scientist.”

“Dr. McKinley's research has given us better estimates of the rates of carbon dioxide uptake by the oceans, and she also works in Wisconsin's backyard, studying changes in the Great Lakes caused by climate change and the accidental introduction of invasive species,” Williams explains.

“She is dedicated to scientific service and leadership and is regularly asked to serve on national scientific advisory panels for policy makers,” he continues. “She is an exemplar of the Bryson Professorship and its mission of carrying out socially relevant research.”