Healing the Planet

The Legacy Lives On

UC San Diego’s roots in climate research, atmospheric chemistry, and marine science run deep. It was oceanographer Roger Revelle, UC San Diego’s founding father, who helped focus the world’s attention on global warming. The pioneering work continues—with the launch of two new multidisciplinary centers in 2013: the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE) and the Scripps Center for Oceans and Human Health.

A five-year, $20 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) supports the CAICE fundamental research and education program on how interactions between air and sea alter the atmosphere’s chemistry. Led by UC San Diego, the CAICE effort leverages the expertise of top scientists from nine universities to explore how particles released from the ocean influence the environment—from local water supplies to global climate.

The cross-campus center focuses on one of the largest uncertainties in understanding and modeling climate: the role of aerosols. Learning more about how these microscopic substances absorb and reflect sunlight, seed clouds, and influence precipitation will improve the world’s ability to predict regional climate and manage water resources.

The CAICE effort has education and outreach components for creating the next generation of environmental scientists. These include programs at K–12 schools throughout San Diego County, an annual hands-on presentation on the basics of aerosols and cloud formation at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and a chemistry-climate curriculum package for fifth and sixth graders with international portability.

Capitalizing on UC San Diego’s unique ability to address environmental threats to public health, the new Center for Oceans and Human Health at Scripps Institution of Oceanography targets emerging contaminants found naturally in common seafood dishes, and man-made chemicals that accumulate in human breast milk. Leading experts in oceanography and medicine are tracking natural chemicals known as halogenated organic compounds, or HOCs. The team includes local scientists at Scripps Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health, UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Human-manufactured varieties of HOCs include chemicals that until recently were widely used in commercial products as flame retardants. These highly toxic chemicals have been linked to various human diseases, including cancer and thyroid ailments. Less is known about the natural versions of HOCs that accumulate in marine mammals such as seals and dolphins and in predators that humans consume such as tuna and swordfish. There is some evidence that these compounds may be increasing in the coastal ocean due to global change, such as nutrient input from human activity.

From top: Geochemist Charles David Keeling in his lab, 1988; Keeling’s son, Scripps Oceanography professor Ralph Keeling

Like Father, Like Son

Environmental dangers relentlessly threaten the planet and its people—and May 9, 2013, marked an alarming milestone. For the first time since “Keeling Curve” measurements began in 1958, the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm). Mauna Loa, the oldest continuous carbon dioxide (CO2) measurement station in the world, is the primary global benchmark site.

Geochemist Charles David Keeling of UC San Diego‘s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, instituted the Keeling Curve measurement program in 1958 and proved that atmospheric CO2 was rising dramatically. His son Ralph Keeling, also a Scripps Oceanography geochemist, has carried on his father’s work. Mindful of this scientific legacy, UC San Diego investigators continue to tackle environmental challenges of all kinds.