Faculty Spotlight: Galen McKinley

February 14, 2011

Studying water's role in the carbon cycle and future climate

Combine a bachelor's degree in civil and environmental engineering with a Ph.D. in climate physics and chemistry. Add expertise in using computer models to understand natural systems and a precise knowledge of the carbon cycle. Top it off with an enthusiastic, empathetic approach to instruction and you have Galen McKinley, an award-winning researcher and teacher.

Galen McKinley
McKinley is an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and an affiliate faculty member in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research. She studies the role of large aquatic bodies in the global carbon cycle, understanding and quantifying how carbon enters and exits these systems and how it is processed within. Her research focuses on the northern Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes " specifically, Lake Superior.

First inspired by an undergraduate Oceans 101 class at Rice University, McKinley credits the course's two professors with opening her eyes "to the mysteries of the ocean and this huge, incredibly important resource we have that we understand so poorly."

Along the way, McKinley says, the open, collaborative environment within the field of oceanography " and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison " has continued to drive her interest and her interdisciplinary approach.

"The people I've met have been really, really good people " people who are willing to share information, willing to talk and help you learn and help move things forward," she says.

Global and local consequences

Since pre-industrial time, oceans have taken up about 50 percent of the carbon entering the atmosphere, McKinley says, significantly moderating global warming. But as we produce more and more carbon emissions, any future reduction in the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean will leave more in the atmosphere.

"And that's going to mean an enhanced rate of global warming," she explains. "We need to understand and have better predictions of how that's going to happen."

And when it comes to the Great Lakes, McKinley says this incredible local resource is understudied.

"If we're really going to understand where our carbon is going locally, we need to understand the role of the Great Lakes," she says. "Inland waters as a whole probably do contribute significantly to the global carbon cycle in a way that hasn't been fully appreciated."

Making the connection

Another facet of McKinley's work is educating the public and other stakeholders about living in a world where the climate is changing " and educating her students.

In teaching, McKinley gets an A-plus. She recently received a UW Class of 1955 Distinguished Teaching Award.

Teaching climate science to atmospheric and oceanic sciences students who are often more interested in studying the day-to-day weather has presented McKinley with a special challenge " a challenge she's embraced since coming to the university in 2004.

"When you're a meteorologist, you have data every day, every 12 hours; you have computer models, lots of different data and you can see the vectors moving … and it just seems very dynamic and very interesting," McKinley says. "And with the climate, the way it's often taught is, 'here's the math, here's the average, here's a trend line' " it doesn't seem as interesting at first blush."

Interactive model on Carbon Cycle Basics Site
McKinley capitalized on the students' interest in viewing data and interactions by incorporating climate modeling with the EdGCM into her courses. With this computer system, students can model future climate scenarios in real time by adjusting the atmospheric carbon content, solar radiation, and other factors. As a compliment to EdGCM, McKinley has developed a simple interactive model (the Carbon Cycle Basics Site) that allows students to delve deeper into the processes, both natural and anthropogenic, that determine the atmospheric carbon content.

Model teacher

Incorporating interactive modeling into atmospheric and oceanic sciences courses has helped "make climate a little more attractive and a little more interesting to students who are used to having a ton of data coming at them," McKinley says.

A compassionate principle guides McKinley's coursework: reflecting on her undergraduate and graduate studies and remembering "what it was like to try to learn and trying to be attentive to the fact that it is a challenge and we can do a little more."

For example, a lot of atmospheric and oceanic sciences work "comes down to some pretty esoteric-seeming equations" when you start in the field, according to McKinley, and the traditional way of teaching these equations can be pretty dry.

McKinley feels they are best learned by demonstrating the systems governed by the equations in models; for instance, showing the dynamics of a rotating planet in a small, rotating tank of water.

McKinley brought this idea to UW-Madison, where students can now see first-hand the effects of rotation on a fluid and, by performing controlled experiments, deepen their understanding.

What lies ahead

Looking to the future, McKinley would like to continue working in the global oceans community " better understanding how ocean physics interact with the carbon cycle to produce variability in the climate system " and also in the Great Lakes, studying the potential impacts of acidification (a decrease in water pH as a result of carbon uptake) when combined with other stressors such as invasive species and pollution.

"The ocean has significantly lowered its pH since preindustrial times, and that's continuing," McKinley says. "That's probably also happening in the Great Lakes, but our data aren't good enough to really show those trends. We need to start thinking about what the effects might be on the ecosystems."

McKinley also hopes to examine to what degree her research on Lake Superior can be connected to other, quite different Great Lakes, such as Lake Erie.

While Lake Superior " the largest of the Great Lakes and largest in the world by surface area " has a very long residence time and is relatively pristine in terms of human impacts, Lake Erie is highly affected by humans and has only a two-year residence time. Erie is also much more influenced by invasive species, acidification and other problems.

"I think it's an interesting scientific question," McKinley says.

She's not the only one. McKinley's work is drawing increasing attention from colleagues and within the scientific community, where she's been honored as a NASA New Investigator from 2008-11.

"I really enjoy the interest that my colleagues have in the work that I do," McKinley says. "I just have really great colleagues here in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and the Center for Climatic Research and across the Nelson Institute and the University."

See a video of McKinley describing her work.