UM Researcher Studies How Living Things Affect The Atmosphere
University of Montana Associate Professor Ashley Ballantyne is a bioclimatologist.
“And what that means is I study how the biosphere and the atmosphere interact,” Ballantyne says.
The biosphere is Earth’s surface layer that contains all life: humans, plants, animals, microbes and soil. The biosphere has a disproportionately big impact on the atmosphere above it, according to Ballantyne.
“You can think of the atmosphere as your bank account, right? So a lot of us, our bank accounts are suffering at the moment due to COVID-19.”
In the bank account analogy, human-released fossil fuels become a carbon “income” into the atmosphere “account.”
“And then you have expenses, so you have carbon leaving the atmosphere to the ocean and to the land."
As a carbon accountant of sorts, Ballantyne works to “balance the budget” through models. He says the ocean and plants absorb carbon dioxide, or C02. For example, for every four units of carbon dioxide that go into the atmosphere, one unit disappears into the ocean and one unit the land absorbs.
“So without these so-called ‘carbon sinks’ taking up this carbon, atmospheric CO2 concentrations would be much higher today,” Ballantyne says. “Essentially plants have given us, like, a 50% rebate on climate change, let’s say.”
But 50% doesn’t balance the budget. Even though, in recent years, humans have started to level off our fossil fuel emissions, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise.
“We can regulate emissions and regulate what fuels we’re using to drive our economy, but we can’t really regulate ecosystems, right? Perhaps some of these sinks are starting to decrease a little bit, which is a little bit worrisome.”
Ballantyne is working to find out how long we can rely on plants to continue to take up CO2. This curiosity for plant life processes and their connection to climate drove him to Montana nearly eight years ago.
“When I read the position, bioclimatology at University of Montana, I thought, 'Well what is bioclimatology? It doesn’t necessarily exist as a discipline, but then when I read the description, they were looking for somebody that could link climate with biology, and it seemed to match my background pretty well, so I applied and I think it’s been a great fit.”
Ballantyne says biology always fascinated him, beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school. But it wasn’t until he wandered into an ecology lab as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, that he realized science could become his life’s pursuit. Scientists in the lab encouraged him to write a research proposal to study algae blooms at Lake Tahoe. His proposal received approval, and his life took a new direction.
“I didn’t even realize that, that, 'Wow, you could be a scientist, that’s a viable career? And that changed the course of my life. Like, 'Somebody’s gonna pay me to do this? This is unbelievable.'”
From there, Ballantyne did more lake studies while receiving a master’s degree at the University of Washington, and as a doctorate student at Duke University, he reconstructed climate history using lake sediments and Amazon tree samples in South America. That project piqued his interest to research the global carbon cycle and its relationship with climate.
“It allows me to pursue whatever the heck I want, because so many processes are involved in the global carbon cycle. So I can look at lakes and I can look at forests and how they’re responding to climate change.”
The University of Montana offers students a Climate Change Studies minor, one of the few of its kind in the world. Ballantyne teaches a course on the science of climate change open to students of all majors.
“Business majors, physical performance majors, dance, English majors, whoever, can take this class," Ballantyne says. "So it draws people from all over campus, and it’s a great class.”
He teaches a more advanced version of the class to graduate students, and he supervises graduate student researchers, including one who is looking at the carbon balance in lakes in and around Glacier National Park. Some absorb carbon and some release it. Scientists don’t know when or why that shift happens.
“It’s good to work with students because I don’t have the time to pursue all these interesting paths,” Ballantyne says. “But students often do, so I learn a lot from my students.”
Ballantyne’s own research involves suspending a device from a balloon to record how CO2 levels change over different elevations to better understand the balance of the carbon exchanged by plants and the atmosphere.
Satellites track Earth’s “greenness” and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but those measurements capture entire air columns; they aren’t able to detail how the CO2 concentration changes as it rises from Earth’s surface. So Ballantyne’s localized measurements – mostly taken here in Missoula – become part of a much bigger global dataset comprising research from hundreds of scientists around the world.
“If we combine our data, then suddenly we have this very powerful carbon observing system that tells us where carbon is being taken up and where it’s being released. And that’s very informative.”
The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a massive experiment for Ballantyne and his climate colleagues, who estimate a 10 to 20% reduction in emissions over the past three months. They can use these observations to estimate similar scenarios.
“If we suddenly reduce emissions by 25%, how would we expect the earth to respond? So we can compare it to our models, and hopefully improve our models. So I think we can use it as a learning opportunity on a global scale.”
While researchers can see measured reductions at the local scale, Ballantyne says it will take at least a year to see the effects of what we’re doing now at the global scale. His own upcoming year is similarly indefinite. He was due to begin a yearlong sabbatical in France in June after receiving a fellowship from President Emmanuel Macron. As he waits for the OK to get his visa, he’s been learning to speak French with the hope he’ll still be abroad by this fall working at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climate et de l’Environnement, a lab that specializes in global carbon cycle research.
“It’s a very international lab,” Ballantyne says. “They mainly operate in English when we’re discussing science, although at lunchtime it can go any direction.”
He’s already collaborating with the international research team remotely, which may continue depending on travel regulations, but he says that isn’t as rewarding as face-to-face interaction. What is rewarding, Ballantyne says, is recognizing that he is developing the carbon cycle models that the rest of the world will use to better predict the future.
“I’m just contributing a very small, little piece to this much larger effort, and that feels very satisfying when I realize that. When I’m focused and working on my computer and looking at data, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that. In talking to other people, it’s good to rekindle the excitement and realize that this is important work.”
But Ballantyne’s forecasts come with a consequence.
“I used to be hopeful that we would stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere in my lifetime, but I don’t foresee that happening. So I’m now hopeful that we will stabilize CO2 concentrations in my children’s lifetime. And then, hopefully, in their children’s lifetime, we will see reductions in atmospheric CO2, we’ll be more mindful of our emissions and we’ll be maybe more clever about ways in which we can remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
"It’s really going to take a concerted, multigenerational effort to really make progress on this challenge, which as a lifetime pursuit, is great. It’s gonna keep my busy for my lifetime and my career. Unfortunately, it’s gonna keep my children busy as well, and occupied with it. But it’s an important effort, and I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Ballantyne shares this hope with his students, too, knowing they’re the stewards who will lead the labs next.
“This is the biggest experiment we’ve ever conducted, right? There’s only one Earth and we’re doing an experiment on the grandest of scales. It’s both frightening and fascinating.”
That’s why Ballantyne always accounts for uncertainty in his carbon budget.