Irina Marinov, an associate professor in Penn’s Earth & Environmental Science Department, is Penn’s leading researcher on climate change. While her research focuses on the way that the geophysics of the Southern Ocean can affect the rest of the globe, Marinov also teaches undergraduate courses on climate change and ocean atmosphere dynamics. Street talked with the newly tenured professor to hear more about her research, the role of politics in climate change, and what she thinks about the future of the planet.

34th Street Magazine: How did you become interested in climate change as a research topic?

Irina Marinov:  I’m originally Romanian. I came to the United States to study physics and math at Middlebury College in Vermont. And I did my Ph.D. at Princeton in ocean atmosphere dynamics. I did post–doctoral research in oceanography at M.I.T. for two years, before joining Penn officially as a lecturer, and then later on tenure–track. I’m also the first woman ever tenured in this department—the first woman tenured in ocean and environmental sciences at Penn. 

Street: So your time at Middlebury was mostly focused on physics and math?

IM: It was also activism. Middlebury is a very "green" university that’s one of the most sustainable colleges in the United States. And of course, Middlebury is a very small college, so it’s easier for them than it is for Penn to become sustainable and have net–zero carbon emissions. But Middlebury College is at the very forefront of environmental activism. So all of that environmental "oomph" that I have—a lot of it comes from going to Middlebury. But I also became interested in climate change through my home country, Romania. As communism collapsed there, a lot of former factories decomposed, basically. We have been dealing with environmental pollution that came from this big communist infrastructure ever since the early ‘90s. My mother is a hydrologist who studied underground water pollution from these previous factories. Pollution, per se, and my interest in water have also come from being Romanian, and growing up in communism, and a little bit in post–communism, and seeing firsthand some environmental degradation. 

Street: What are some of the projects you’re currently doing research on?

IM: My specific expertise is the role of the oceans in climate change. I study, specifically, the critically important role of the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica in climate change. One paper that we published, and are working on follow–up work for, is about openings in the sea ice during wintertime in the Southern Ocean. Openings in the sea ice—these are called polynyas—these openings in the sea ice allow a lot of heat from the ocean to reach the atmosphere. So what we can see is that in years or decades when we have openings in wintertime in the Southern Ocean sea ice, we can see the influence of the heat signal coming from there. Our model suggests that these impacts can be global. For example, the amount of rain you get globally can be influenced by what happens in the southern ocean. I also work on carbon cycles, so looking at how much of the CO2 that we put into the atmosphere ends up in the oceans, and how long will it stay there before it comes back up? This is called the ocean carbon sink, and in the context of future climate change, we are interested in whether the ocean carbon sink will intensify or become weaker. Will the ocean be less efficient or more efficient at storing carbon into the future? I also study ecology in the ocean. I look at predictions of climate models, with future climate change. I look at how as the climate is changing, how the different biomes of the ocean are shifting, and how the competition between different "phyto–plants" in the ocean changes. I use NASA satellite information to look at ocean biology from space. 

Street: Is this the kind of material that you teach in your classes?

IM: I teach climate change in the fall, and ocean atmosphere dynamics in the spring. I’m also proposing a more advanced version of the first covering hot topics in climate science for next fall, to teach a follow–up class for students interested in more advanced levels. The climate change class is less mathematical and more of an overview in climate sciences. My spring class in ocean atmosphere dynamics is much more technical because we do a lot of computer labs. In parallel with the theory of how it all works, we model these topics computationally. So it attracts a very different audience of primarily physics and engineering majors, while the climate change class is extremely broad. I have students from all over campus. In previous years, I attracted a lot of students from Wharton actually.

Street: Are you working on any other projects right now?

IM: I’m proposing a Penn climate and environmental change center. We need a place where we can study the science and solutions. My idea is to do a center that has two separate directions. One can deal with the earth system analysis—oceans, land, biosphere—so basically the natural science part. And the second part will relate to impacts of climate on society and solutions—solutions through both adaptation to climate change and mitigation of climate change risks. I’m hoping to bring together faculty that are not only in natural science, but some that are also economists and social scientists from across campus. The solutions need to be framed around big data. Big data is the keyword here. We’re extremely behind peer institutions. I cannot emphasize that enough. If we look at Harvard, if we look at Princeton, if we look at Brown—all of these schools already have climate and environmental change centers that are rather large and well developed. Penn is extremely behind in this, and we really need to catch up with our peers here, especially given the huge interest from students at Penn.

Street: How do you have time for everything?

IM: I don’t. I don’t sleep. It’s horrible [laughing]. I have two small kids at home. We’ve actually been having trouble with the older one, because we made posters with the kids to go into the streets for the climate protest earlier this fall. He has learned that his mom is into protesting. So now when his math teacher tells him to do something, he’ll stand up and say “I protest.” I think he’s learning from his mom that we like to protest in the streets. It’s good for our students to learn to be involved. One of the things I did—so two weeks ago, I testified for the first time in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, in this public hearing—and I was shocked that at these meetings, they had a lot of climate deniers. I never wanted to do much politics. I just wanted to be a climate scientist. But I’m learning now that it’s becoming impossible to separate the climate science from the politics. I would like the students to learn how to separate facts and fiction. But no, I don’t sleep much. It’s become too intense.

Street: What do you think will happen in the future with climate change?

IM: I think we’re going to see more and more participation of young people. There will be a critical amount of noise that young people need to make on this topic. I think the governments will have no option but to listen to them. I think that we have to reduce to net–zero global emissions around 2050, no matter what. I’m rather hopeful, actually, about the future. Maybe I’m more hopeful than non–academics, because I get to have amazing young people in my classes, who are so determined. You kind of manage, when you’re a faculty member, to keep yourself excited by the students around you. I have hope for the planet because of my amazing students. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.