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Adrienne Sutton
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Adrienne Sutton

Making climate science her policy

by Leslie Irwin, OAR Communications Specialist

Acting as a Congressional Liaison for the NOAA Office of Legislative Affairs, Adrienne Sutton accomplished a lot for climate policy during her three-year tenure in Washington, D.C.  Briefing members and staff of the U.S. Congress on NOAA’s research, contributing to hearings and legislation, and helping communicate the results of the then hot-off-the-presses 2007 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were just some of the things that kept her busy. Nevertheless, a constant interest in the connection between human interactions and the environment, as evidenced by her doctoral research on nutrient inputs into the Chesapeake Bay, pulled Sutton to return to science.

Since January 2012, Sutton has been a Research Scientist in the Carbon Group at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO).

“I loved my experience with climate change policy,” says Sutton. “But when I saw how important the science was to the decision-making process I just had to come back.”

When she came back to pursue research, Sutton brought her new policy and communication skills with her. This was a good thing, as working in the climate-science field puts a spotlight on her research.

“I never expected to spend so much time being interviewed and giving public talks, so communicating your research in an understandable way is critical,“ Sutton explains.

"The power of transformative science and the potential solutions to our societal challenges that may result keeps me motivated."

Sutton studies the huge role the ocean plays in the carbon cycle, absorbing 25 percent of yearly carbon emissions into the atmosphere.  Understanding the dynamics of carbon in the ocean is necessary for grasping effects on our changing climate. Her research focuses on characterizing the extent of ocean acidification in the open ocean and coral reef environments, and how processes like the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) affect variations in ocean carbon chemistry over time and space.

Starting in 1997, the PMEL Carbon Group has built a mooring network of 36 carbon dioxide “ocean observatories” in every ocean basin, along coasts, and near coral reefs, providing continuous, high-resolution data. From these, Sutton identifies temporal, seasonal, and decadal trends in carbon dioxide concentrations, saturation state, and pH.

“These long-term mooring time series allow us to track ocean change and also complement previous decades of data from ship-based observations.”

One of the most significant findings of her research, based on the moorings in the equatorial Pacific, is that the Pacific is off-gassing more carbon dioxide since a decadal-scale shift in 1997. This is significant to the global carbon cycle considering the equatorial Pacific is the largest oceanic source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  Since this shift, there has also been a change in ENSO patterns, and whether this is due to natural variability or anthropogenic impact is currently unknown.

Sutton is always surprised by her data. “That’s what being a scientist is all about!  Even though I spend much of my time in front of a computer thanks to the autonomous moorings,” she says, “the power of transformative science and the potential solutions to our societal challenges that may result keeps me motivated.”

Sutton attributes the start of her success and love of science and math to her high school physics teacher, who always encouraged her and her female classmates to pursue STEM careers. That inspiration continues to serve her well.

Adrienne Sutton received her PhD in Oceanography from the University of Maryland in 2006 and was a 2006 Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. She started at PMEL as a Postdoctoral Associate with Drs. Richard Feely and Chris Sabine in 2010 before joining JISAO in 2012 as a Research Scientist.  NOAA logo.

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