ALUMNI IN ACTION
Climate Science: On Thin Ice
By Julia Halprin Jackson
Nationally recognized climate scientist and alumna Jennifer Francis’ research demonstrates how global warming is fueling extreme weather worldwide.
Forty years after her first sailing trip to the Arctic, Francis, ’88 Meteorology, says the climate changes across the Arctic region are “breathtaking.” She’s not talking about the views.
“Half of the summer sea ice has disappeared,” Francis says while aboard Saphira, the catamaran she calls home for much of the year. “The ice has gotten much thinner. If you take the change in real estate that it covers and multiply it by the change in thickness, you get the volume change — we’ve seen 75% of that volume has disappeared in four decades. That’s an incredibly rapid change in a key part of the climate system.”
Throughout her career, Francis has pioneered the use of satellite data to understand the dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic, and how disproportionate warming there is affecting temperate regions on Earth. Her work suggests that rapid Arctic warming may be linked to shifting weather patterns in North America and Eurasia, contributing to an increase in extreme weather with greater frequency around the northern hemisphere.
“A common misconception about climate change is that it’s a future problem; that it’s only going to affect your kids or grandkids.”
— Jennifer Francis
Francis first explored the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere with her husband Peter in the early 1980s, long before positioning systems (GPS) and cell phone technology made it possible to navigate and access weather forecasting data in the region. During the five years they circumnavigated the globe via sailboat, she witnessed everything from the rich biodiversity of the tropics to the brutal intensity of Cape Horn's storms — and yet it was the Arctic that piqued her scientific curiosity. This interest in weather brought her to San José State University in 1985.
“The Meteorology Department was the best place I could possibly have chosen to go,” she says. “It was very personal, hands-on, excellent teaching. I got an incredibly solid foundation in what I needed for graduate school, and I was fortunate to get an internship with a scientist at NASA Ames that got me hooked on research.”
She kept a close eye on the warming planet as a PhD student at the University of Washington and later as a research professor at Rutgers University, where she taught for more than 20 years before becoming a senior research scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. She was awarded the American Geophysical Union's Climate Communication Prize in 2020.
Francis has become a sought-after public speaker and science communicator. She has also been called upon as an expert witness in multiple Congressional hearings to share insight on climate science.
“A common misconception about climate change is that it’s a future problem; that it’s only going to affect your kids or grandkids,” she says. “No. Climate change is here now and happening before our very eyes. And while it’s very bad, we have solutions.”
While it can be scary to witness how climate change is affecting the intensity and frequency of extreme weather from wildfires to floods, Francis says future generations will have opportunities to solve problems through innovation and creative thinking.
“I know my kids’ generation is excited about the opportunities the climate crisis presents, and they’re going into incredible new careers in fields that didn’t exist five years ago,” she says. “They’re focused on some of these big societal problems and climate change is just one of them. I see a lot of engagement, talent and energy going into helping us get on a better path.”
“Climate change is here now and happening before our very eyes. And while it’s very bad, we have solutions."
— Jennifer Francis
Join the movement
To inspire this emerging movement, Francis is a generous donor to San José State’s College of Science. Contact Sabra Diridon at email@example.com to learn how you can join her in supporting research at SJSU.
Top photo of Jennifer Francis: National Academy of Sciences. Center photo: Associated Press. Illustration by Jennifer Guo, '24 Animation/Illustration.