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MIT Oceanography Professor Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli

Sitting in Professor Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli’s office at MIT, I forget for a few minutes what I am there for. We are discussing her passion for opera, and how she almost pursued a career in the arts as a young girl. A moment later, though, with a seamless transition she starts talking about climate change, and all of a sudden, her down-to-earth, somehow reassuring central Italian accent switches to a more professional, almost Venetian tone: “Warming is unequivocal, global warming, that is!”

It’s the sign that my personal chitchat with MIT oceanography professor Malanotte-Rizzoli is over and the actual interview has begun. Her straightforwardness, though, remains the same when she talks about the subject she is currently devoting most of her time and efforts to.

Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli

MIT Professor of Oceanography Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli (photo by Ed Quinn, courtesy of Spectrum

What makes this energetic and restless academic ignite like a firework is the issue that — once again — is stirring the global climate debate on the future of our planet, the responsibilities at the root of this possible catastrophe and how to avert it.

“The science is all here,” says Malanotte-Rizzoli, as she takes a volume as thick as the New York phone book off a pile of similar ones (the reports on global warming published every three years by the world’s most prominent scientists). As she nervously flips through the hundreds of pages, her knowledge and convictions hit shore like a “tsunami”:

“The rise in temperature that has occurred over the last 100 years is due to us,” she says. “A lot of people do not agree, or pretend they do not agree, only because there are enormous interests at stake.

“Regarding sea level, presently there is a gradual increase, of about three millimeters per year. But these predictions do not take into account other phenomena that we don’t know. For instance, the Arctic is basically melted and the famous Northwest Passage is now there. Also, Greenland is on its way to becoming green again. All of this will be a reality if drastic measures are not taken soon. Some model predictions show that in the course of roughly one and a half centuries parts of Antarctica may detach from the continent. If and when that happens, New York, Florida and a number of coastal areas on the Eastern seaboard will be under water.”

Having grown up in Venice — despite her central Italian roots — Malanotte-Rizzoli knows all too well what cities at sea level have at stake. Overlooking the Charles River and Boston’s Back Bay in her 14th floor office inside MIT’s only skyscraper, she keeps copies of Italian newspapers reporting on the so-called “Acqua Alta” (High Water) phenomenon. One picture from 1966 stands out, showing Venice’s world-famous landmarks under six feet of water due to an unusually powerful storm surge.

The "Acqua Alta" phenomenon in Venice, Italy.

The “Acqua Alta” phenomenon in Venice, Italy.

That event inevitably impressed Malanotte-Rizzoli, who at the time was a physics student at the nearby University of Padua. Two years after graduating, she returned to her hometown as a researcher for the CNR (Italian national Research Center). From there, she never stopped trying to solve the problem, to the point where she is currently part of the MIT team of consultants for the MOSE project that should end the Acqua Alta nightmare once and for all.

In the meantime, however, her scientific interests have gone well beyond her native lagoon.

At the Scripps Oceanography Institute in La Jolla, California, she earned her doctorate while on staff as a senior researcher in Venice, taking part in a cross-Atlantic commute between continents and subjects, which “at the time did not seem like much,” she recalls. She then landed a professorship position at MIT thanks to Ed Lorenz, who was impressed by her thesis on chaos theory (of which he was the creator).

“I specialized in physics of the sea,” Malanotte-Rizzoli says. “Dynamics of fluid applied to oceans. There are a lot of equations to it… And they are complicated!” Yet, when she talks about her studies and findings, she makes it sound amazingly simple and — to a degree — worrisome.

“Roughly one third of sea level rising is due to ice melting; two thirds comes from thermal expansion – as water expands when it gets warmer” she explains. “Yes, there are cycles, yet superimposed to the cycle there is the human effect. The warming is a cumulative effect, and if you stopped emissions now you would not immediately return to square one. All that is in the atmosphere continues to have an effect. Carbon dioxide, no matter how it is produced, is the number one cause of the greenhouse effect. There is not much more to say.”

Although, she assures, there is no scientific evidence for climate change denial, fossil fuel has many powerful advocates. “There are colleagues of mine — who thank God are increasingly isolated — still in denial, mostly just for the sake of defending their original positions”. You see, scientists are ‘prima donnas’ who do not like to admit they were ever wrong.”

“In any case there is still too much money invested in greenhouse gas-producing industries in the United States, India, and China — three countries who refuse to sign international emission-reducing treaties. China, in particular, does not give a damn about what anybody says. In the past, when they were still trying to reach international superpower status, they would listen, a little, once in a while. Now they basically do what they want. There is a ‘Chinese model’ now which basically goes like this: ‘We are big, we are rich, we proceed on our way. And, by the way, we buy everything … in cash!’”

Malanotte-Rizzoli does not hold back the punches — she never has. She can speak even louder now, as she will retire in three years, “as soon as the Singapore project is over.” (Malanotte-Rizzoli is currently heading a collaboration between MIT and the State of Singapore for the study of the interactions between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.) Yet, her contagious drive and passion for her work suggests otherwise and makes her retirement plans a little hard to believe.

In fact, it is the same passion she recalls having for music as a young girl. The daughter of a famous Italian violinist, at age eleven she learned La Traviata by heart while contemplating a future as opera singer. Her other choice was math teacher. “At the time I did not even know what physics was,” she explains. Eventually, she chose the latter path and, whatever her personal reasons, with all due respect to Opera, we all should be happy she did. In this environmentally dire day and age, a voice like hers is much more needed on the stage of global climate conferences than on that of music theaters.

Video interview (in Italian) by Stefano Salimbeni, for RAI Italia:

About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.