UArizona climatologist explains how mining can be part of a sustainable future

Source: The University of Arizona

Date: Feb 14, 2024

By: Mikayla Mace Kelley, University Communications

Joellen Russell, a renowned University of Arizona climatologist, will join a panel of experts at a symposium Thursday to discuss the university’s role in establishing mining practices that help create a more sustainable future.

Scientists have long known that a more sustainable future requires wider adoption of solar, wind, geothermal and other forms of energy that don’t involve fossil fuels.

But such technology will require minerals that can only be harvested through mining.

A symposium on Thursday will examine Arizona’s unique role in securing zinc, manganese and other metals needed to meet global sustainability goals in a way that brings jobs and economic growth while protecting the natural environment.

The event is part of a partnership between the global mining company South32 and the university’s School of Mining and Mineral Resources, which is administered jointly by the College of Science and College of Engineering. South32 aims to harvest these key metals from a new mine, called the Hermosa project, that the company is designing in the Patagonia Mountains southeast of Tucson.

Among the leaders speaking to the state’s challenges and opportunities associated with mining will be renowned UArizona climatologist and oceanographer Joellen Russell, head of the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science. Russell, a University Distinguished Professor, has deployed robot floats in the Southern Ocean to understand the ocean’s role in the climate and carbon cycle of the past, present and future.

In this Q&A, Russell gives a climate scientist’s perspective on sustainable mining practices, and why the university should be part of the sustainable mining discussion particularly in Arizona.

Q: What interest does a climate scientist have in sustainable mining practices and why are you advocating for it?

A: I’m a climate scientist that is incredibly interested in how fast we can make the transition away from fossil fuels to other forms of energy. I’m a huge fan of everything from geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, solar, wind, you name it, but in order to build that infrastructure, we require critical minerals.

If you want to make this big transition in the economy, and you don’t just want to be negotiating with other countries that may or may not be friendly to us, or with other companies that may or may not be friendly to us, then we need to develop our own sources. So I’m just thrilled to be on a panel with folks who are right on the cutting edge of both what to do and how to do it right.

Q: Why should sustainable mining be undertaken in Arizona?

A: The history of mining out West – while incredibly successful – also has a reputation for being pretty dirty. If we’re going to do this, we might as well do it right. Mining is part of the DNA of our state and continues to be.

But at the same time, Arizona is one of the fastest-warming states. Tucson and Phoenix are the third- and fourth-fastest warming cities in the nation, and that increased carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuel burning as our source of energy just isn’t going to cut it. We’re going to need to transition away from that, and that transition costs critical minerals. They’re really necessary in a lot of the growing clean energy technologies like wind turbines, electricity networks, electric vehicles and so on.

I’m not saying every mine should be greenlit, and I’m not saying every project is the best project, but I am saying we can do it better in service of the state and the nation.

Q: What role does the University play in all this?

A: We at the University of Arizona have this long-standing tradition of excellence in Earth science, climate science, geology and economic geology. The research that we’re doing here is why we’re in a position to lead the world in this way. I think I’m on the panel as an advocate, both for careful, well-done exploration and access to the critical minerals.

So, we’ll be leading the charge on the research end of how to do it well, and we’ll look at the evidence very carefully, so we can keep our community safe and secure. And we have a really big interest in this, because mining is an ongoing part of our economy here, and because we’re getting awfully hot. So, I see this as a win-win.




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