Connection between oceans, atmosphere drive climate scientist’s work

Climate scientist Amy Clement was recently named president-elect of the American Geophysical Union's atmospheric sciences division. She stands outside the Science Laboratory and Administration Building on the Rosenstiel campus. Photo by Diana Udel/University of Miami.
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Climate scientist Amy Clement was recently named president-elect of the American Geophysical Union's atmospheric sciences division. She stands outside the Science Laboratory and Administration Building on the Rosenstiel campus. Photo by Diana Udel/University of Miami.

Connection between oceans, atmosphere drive climate scientist’s work

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Amy Clement, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, has dedicated her career to analyzing climate changes now and in the future.

The ocean has always had a special appeal to atmospheric sciences professor Amy Clement. 

Growing up in coastal Massachusetts, and on Long Island, New York, she often spent free time exploring the beach, or swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Her love for the outdoors piqued her interest in science, and today Clement bikes to work at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, so she can appreciate the beauty of Biscayne Bay—and do her part to reduce carbon emissions. 

But through her career, Clement has become acutely aware of the complex mechanisms at work under the ocean’s surface, as well as how they interact with our atmosphere as a climate scientist. She published research that challenged past beliefs about the earth’s changing climate and broadened scientific knowledge about the role that the atmosphere, clouds, and phenomena like the El Niño/La Niña effect play in long-term weather patterns. 

Along the way, she developed a network of colleagues and learned to advocate for more climate research through the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Now, Clement will help support the growth of this community internationally, as president-elect of the atmospheric sciences division of the AGU, one of the largest organizations for earth and space scientists. Overall, the AGU boasts 60,000 members in 137 countries and 15,000 members belong to the atmospheric science section. The organization also publishes 21 different scientific journals. 

“I’ve always thought of the AGU as a really professional, well-run organization that plays a vital role in our field,” said Clement, who got more involved with the AGU after receiving the James Macelwane Award in 2007, an early career honor that includes becoming a fellow of the AGU. Clement is also a fellow of the American Meteorological Society. “I’m excited to support this community of scientists and to help provide resources for them to be even more successful in their careers.” 

Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School, said he is proud that Clement will have such a prominent role. Several Rosenstiel School faculty members, including Avissar, are fellows of the AGU. 

“It is the most significant professional organization, internationally speaking, for the geosciences,” said Avissar, who is also an atmospheric scientist. “Amy being recognized for this position aligns with our own esteem of her leadership in her field. It’s a great honor, but it is also a great service to the scientific community, and we are appreciative that she is taking on this role. In doing so, she carries with her the Rosenstiel school and the University, so it will put us in the forefront of the community as a top institution.” 

Clement has taught and conducted research as part of the Rosenstiel School’s Department of Atmospheric Science for 21 years and served as an associate dean for graduate studies. Her work focuses on climate changes in the ocean and the atmosphere, including sea level rise, extreme heat, and extreme rainfall to learn how those climate events are changing from the distant past of the glacial period into the future. Clement is now working on research to tease out how much of the extreme weather events we are witnessing today are caused by human-created pollution, and what is due to natural variation. 

“For example, sea level rise can have a year or a decade where it’s much higher here in Florida than other places,” she said. “We are trying to determine how much of that is directly caused by humans, and how much is the result of a change in ocean circulation.”

Before joining the University as a faculty member, Clement spent her college and graduate school years at Columbia University, where she had the chance to learn under some of the top climate scientists in the world, like James Hansen, who testified to Congress in 1989 about the evidence that human-created global warming was occurring; Wallace Broecker, who pioneered the use of radiocarbon and isotope dating to understand past climate fluctuations and discovered the “ocean conveyor belt” of heat (which is used to help understand climate); and Mark Cane—Clement’s doctoral advisor—who, with a colleague, built the first computer model able to predict the El Niño Southern Oscillation effect. 

“That central pursuit of discovering something new and fundamental about the way the earth works is a main driver for me,” Clement said in a 2019 podcast, called “Deep Convection.”

When she was a graduate student, Clement went to her first AGU conference, and presented a paper. While she had to debate her own research with seasoned climate experts, Clement welcomed the opportunity, and still does. 

“It’s so stimulating to be right at the center of a debate and I feel lucky to be engaged in that way,” Clement said in the podcast. “To really have debates that are live and ongoing.” 

Some of this includes Clement’s early research, which showed that a mechanism called “the thermostat,” may cool the tropical Pacific Ocean as temperatures across the globe are warming. At the time, Clement faced backlash for her theory, but today the phenomenon is actually playing out and the equatorial Pacific is cooling, she noted. Since the Pacific Ocean—the world’s largest and deepest basin—also impacts the global atmosphere and temperature, Clement argued that this thermostat mechanism is trying to cool the ocean and equalize the planet’s heat amidst global warming. 

Using sophisticated climate modeling, Clement also co-published a study that explained why Europe maintains warmer temperatures during the winter than other continents at its latitude. It concluded that North America’s Rocky Mountains diverts some of the cool air southward warming it up before it heads to Europe. 

In recent months, Clement’s team published a study explaining that an area of the north Atlantic Ocean that is cooling is not indicative of a major slowdown in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation(AMOC), which transports energy to the region. Since geological records indicate that a slowing AMOC often foreshadows major climate changes, it was believed that this cooling may portend a dramatic event like a sudden ice age captured in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” but Clement’s study showed that is unlikely we will see such a catastrophic impact in the near future. 

These experiences defending her research and collaborating with scientists around the world have served her well in recent years, as Clement expanded her involvement in climate issues beyond the lab. She is currently leading two interdisciplinary research teams as part of the University’s Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK)—one that explores how to engage the public in climate adaptation planning, and another that aims to determine which areas of Miami will be most impacted by extreme heat.

Amy Clement with Joanna Lombard
Joanna Lombard speaks with Amy Clement at a U-LINK workshop.

Outside of the University, Clement is vice chair of the City of Miami’s Climate Resilience Committee and is co-director of the Resilient 305 Collaborative—a partnership among local higher education institutions, governments, and environmental organizations throughout Miami-Dade County. She is also on the board of directors for Miami Waterkeeper, an organization that aims to protect South Florida’s water and ecosystems. 

“What I bring to the table is an understanding of the role of research and new data collection for this problem of preparing for future climate change,” Clement said. “I get a lot of personal satisfaction in being able to push a community to think ahead on this issue, as opposed to being reactive, or not responsive.” 

Joanna Lombard, a professor of architecture who also teaches in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health, has become a close colleague of Clement’s and serves with her on the U-LINK team exploring climate adaptation strategies. She is not surprised Clement was elected to lead the AGU, as she watched Clement form the county’s Resilient 305 Collaborative with Florida International University professor Tiffany Troxler a few years ago. It is now 100 members strong. 

“She is a community builder, whether it’s a scientific community, an academic community, or a sidewalk community,” said Lombard, who also serves with Clement on “Grove 2030,” a grassroots group formed in 2014 to envision the resilient future of Coconut Grove, and is a faculty scholar in the University’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. “Amy is a uniter, not a divider, and that’s really important.”