By Jack Baker
It can be taken quite literally when someone says that Citizens’ Climate Education board member Dr. Sandra Kirtland Turner has been all over the world in the past years. Sandy, as she goes by, now has her home base just outside of Los Angeles. After finishing her Ph.D. at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Sandy received a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and was hosted at the University of Bristol for two years.
Earlier this year, Sandy was awarded the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship. “This is really flattering—colleagues of mine nominated me for it,” Sandy explains, which encouraged her after a period of time off with her newborn daughter, who turned one in February. “It’s a financial award: $65,000. I run a lab, and it’s always helpful for my research program to have financial support.” The next place her research will take her is on an oceanographic expedition this fall, where she’ll sail from New Zealand to Tahiti.
A long history
Sandy’s relationship with Citizens’ Climate Lobby dates back to 2008. She attended Scripps at the same time as CCL’s Danny Richter, and they were both members of a group called the Environmental Science and Policy group. “He and I had really similar interests. We were doing science degrees, but we were really concerned with the broader implications of the science,” Sandy says. On Earth Day in Balboa Park that year, Danny met some CCLers who were tabling. They invited him to their next meeting, but he couldn’t attend. He passed the invitation along to Sandy, and she said, “Yeah, I’m interested!” She attended the meeting in Coronado at someone’s house, tuning into a national call that had just a few other groups on the line. Shortly after that, CCL’s founder Marshall Saunders came out to Scripps to do an official group start workshop. “I’ve been involved ever since,” Sandy says, eventually becoming the group leader for the Scripps chapter.
As she has moved around, she’s made it a point to stay connected. Since returning from a few years in the United Kingdom, Sandy has joined Citizens’ Climate Education as a member of the governing board. Sandy says her duties as a board member are to provide oversight for the organization: keeping an eye on financials, general operation, providing support for executive director Mark Reynolds, and so on. “We get reports on a quarterly basis from Mark about the financial status of CCE and CCL, major policy objectives we’re pursuing, major growth areas” and more, Sandy explains, and she and her fellow board members provide insight. Although her days are busy, Sandy also continues to participate in grassroots CCL activities as much as possible, like helping to establish a chapter in Riverside and appearing on Core Volunteer Training webinars to help educate volunteers about climate science.
The other side of Sandy’s story is her work as an assistant professor of paleoclimatology and paleoceanography at the University of California, Riverside. Sandy explains that her work “focuses on reconstructing Earth’s climate through time and trying to build models that allow us to test what controls our climate system.” While some researchers utilize ice cores to measure past greenhouse gas concentrations or to estimate past temperatures, Sandy’s research uses deep sea sediment cores. “We drill down into the sediments at the bottom of the ocean floor and use tiny fossils to reconstruct things like the ocean’s temperature and information about Earth’s carbon cycle in the past,” she says. Using data from these sediment cores and a certain type of climate model—called intermediate complexity earth system models—Sandy and her team are able to look at how events “that happen over maybe thousands to tens of thousands of years can influence the amount of atmospheric CO2 in the atmosphere.”
By combining the fossil records with estimates of past climate change, Sandy and her team are trying to understand the tipping points for different ecosystems in the future. This helps them identify “areas we need to protect or preserve to prevent a massive ecosystem disruption or extinction,” Sandy explains. Reflecting on her research, Sandy notes, “You have to go back more than ten million years until CO2 was higher than 400 ppm like it is today. It is not characteristic of recent earth history to have CO2 this high, which is why we’re so concerned. It’s anomalous.”
This fall, Sandy will participate in an International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) expedition in the South Pacific. Sailing from New Zealand to Tahiti, Sandy and an international team of scientists will spend two months drilling into the ocean floor, collecting sediment cores from different locations. She’ll be out at sea during our 2018 Congressional Education Day, in fact, on a ship that used to be an oil drilling vessel. It’s since been converted so it can be used for scientific purposes. “It’s kind of funny, all of the people who work in the drilling crew on the ship are oil company guys. They used to work in the oil industry,” she says. “It’s really interesting getting to chat with them about how much more they enjoy doing this kind of application as opposed to working on an actual oil rig.”
Want to connect with Sandy? “I really like to be a resource for CCL volunteers,” Sandy says. “People should know they can contact me if they have science questions.” Just give her a few days to get back to you—after all, she might be halfway around the world.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Citizens’ Climate Education each have an advisory board and a governing board. You can see the full lists of CCL’s board members here and here, and CCE’s board members here and here.
Jack Baker is a Legislative Intern in CCL’s D.C. office. Jack graduated from Virginia Tech in May of 2018 with a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning. This fall, Jack will start a graduate program in Climate Sciences at the University of Bern.