Sharing the science of human pollution and the health of the planet with the public
Kimberly Prather is a distinguished professor and chair of atmospheric chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego
Engaging and informing the public about issues related to science and technology allows more people to contribute to the decisions and potential solutions that affect the environment around them, as well as their lives. Having those conversations are important and necessary to people like Kimberly Prather and to The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.
The center is hosting an event on Wednesday at the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park, and Prather is the featured speaker, addressing the question of “How do we know human impact on our oceans is impairing the health of our planet?”
“I strongly believe it is our responsibility as scientists to help the public understand the true facts about the causes for the unprecedented changes our planet is experiencing,” she said of why she chose to accept the invitation to speak at the event. “My hope is that by understanding the impacts humans are having, more people will begin to make the proper choices in our lives to turn this situation around, which needs to happen soon.”
Prather, 57, is a distinguished professor and chair of atmospheric chemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and lives in Encinitas with her husband, Joe, and they have two sons. She’s also the founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE) and in 2019, she became the first woman at UC San Diego elected to the National Academy of Engineering. She took some time to discuss her work as a scientist, what she’ll discuss during her lecture with The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, and what her initial career plans were before choosing atmospheric chemistry.
Q: You’re the founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE). Tell us about CAICE.
A: CAICE focuses on developing a better understanding of how aerosols affect our atmosphere and climate. It began in 2010 and has been funded by the NSF for over 13 years for $41.5 million. Its overarching goal is to bring together people from many disciplines to tackle a grand societal challenge where our lack of understanding of chemistry is limiting our ability to solve the problem. The center focuses on chemistry, climate and the environment. In addition to fundamental research, CAICE strives to educate the next generation of leaders in environmental chemistry, as well as perform extensive outreach and public engagement activities. For example, we are starting to establish an air quality network across San Diego County, extending down into Mexico with sensors, by working with community partners, local schools and citizens. This initiative helps make the public much more aware of the impact humans are having on oceans, the air we are breathing, and our environment.
Q: Why was founding this center something you felt compelled to do?
A: After years of conducting field studies, it became clear that it was not possible to understand how the processes occurring in the ocean are affecting the composition of the atmosphere, and vice versa. The fact is, air travels around the globe on the timescale of two weeks, and thus, there is no place on Earth where you can go to study just the ocean’s impact on the atmosphere. Moving the ocean/atmosphere into the lab allowed us to isolate the individual processes occurring in the ocean, perturb them one by one, and study the effect. We are now adding in human pollutants to study how they alter ocean emissions. This “ocean in the lab” approach has allowed us to uniquely study the rapid and significant effect human pollution is having on coastal environments.
Q: At Wednesday’s event with The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, you’re scheduled to address the question of “How do we know human impact on our oceans is impairing the health of our planet?” Can you tell us a bit about what you’ll cover in your upcoming discussion?
A: I will discuss the current trajectory we are on in terms of affecting the health of our planet. I will address how we know this through measurements of “chemical fingerprints” that show humans are indeed the cause of the current unprecedented rate of change in Earth’s temperature. I will discuss the unique CAICE studies being done to study microbial processes in the ocean, and our most recent studies showing how humans are disrupting these natural processes, leading to unprecedented changes to our environment.
Q: Why is the focus of this discussion on the ways humans impact the world’s oceans?
A: Oceans cover nearly three quarters of our Earth, and for billions of years and have evolved to play a major, natural role in regulating the composition and temperature of our planet. CAICE is in unique position to address the extent of human impacts on these natural processes and directly measure the impacts of airborne pollutants on natural microbial emissions from the ocean.
Q: How does ocean health affect the health of the rest of the planet?
A: All creatures on Earth (humans, microbes, plants, animals) are intimately linked through nature, including the ocean, which contains microbes that produce up to 85 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Right now, all signs (drought, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires) are pointing to Mother Nature not being happy. The bottom line is, we are all in this together and if we take care of nature, it will take care of us.
Q: What can you tell us about the ocean-atmosphere simulator developed by CAICE?
A: The ocean-atmosphere simulator is located at the hydraulics lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. This system enables us to study biological processes in real seawater and how they affect clouds and climate. The system equipped with breaking waves allows us to isolate and identify which biological species (viruses, proteins, bacteria) get transferred into the atmosphere and, importantly, how they impact planetary and human health. Before these studies, a major focus was placed on terrestrial microbes, as it was not possible to isolate the air above the ocean and detect only ocean-derived microbes.
Q: What kinds of experiments have been conducted through the simulator that help answer the question posed in this upcoming event through The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology?
A: This past summer, nearly 100 scientists participated in a study called SeaSCAPE. In this study, we began to investigate how quickly species that are emitted from the ocean become transformed by reactions with atmospheric pollutants. This is the first time we have been able to directly probe how much pollution from humans is impacting the natural processes that normally control clouds, climate, and Earth’s temperature.
Q: What has been learned as a result of these experiments?
A: Our early findings suggest that the emissions from the ocean become rapidly transformed by human pollution. Furthermore, species from the ocean mix with human pollution to produce even more air pollution; none of this is currently included in air quality predictions or climate models.
Q: What are some things people can do right now to have a more positive impact on the world’s oceans?
A: We need to stop doing things that add more pollutants to the atmosphere, namely burning fossil fuels. When pollutants such as CO2 (carbon dioxide) are emitted into the atmosphere, they build up over time, which is leading to the current climate crisis we are now facing.
Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?
A: It has taught me that I am motivated by not only doing the science, but also coming up with solutions. I have come to appreciate that this problem cannot be solved without an interdisciplinary approach involving all disciplines, ranging from chemistry to social sciences to engineering to oceanography, which is enabled by having a large center like CAICE.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: One piece of advice that comes to mind is that the amount of push-back one receives to new ideas in publications and proposals, is directly proportional to the transformative potential of the concept. So, instead of succumbing to the pressure and stopping, which would be the easiest path, one needs to persist and push even harder to get to those new findings that change the traditionally held views out there.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: Probably that I wasn’t born knowing I wanted to grow up and be a scientist; this realization came relatively late in my education path. In fact, I really wanted to play professional tennis!
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Hanging out at home with my family, our Golden Retriever (Windy), cooking, and gardening. Also, I love when I can squeeze in a bit of time catching up reading the latest scientific literature.
— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
Sign up for the Encinitas Advocate newsletter
Top stories from Encinitas every Friday for free.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Encinitas Advocate.