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Jay Mace: Scientist of clouds, painter of landscapes

A childhood love of nature led to a career studying Earth’s atmosphere, bringing Mace to Southern Ocean on DOE-funded research expedition.

This story is adapted from a long profile of Jay Mace posted by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is funding the University of Utah atmospheric scientist’s research on the Southern Ocean. Mace is currently on a research trip to Tasmania’s wind-whipped Cape Grim, also known by its aboriginal name “kennaook,” where the world’s most pristine air can be observed.

During his boyhood in northeastern Ohio Gerald “Jay” Mace had two dreams.

One was to have a career that brought him close to nature. In those days, long hikes in the woods always included stopping by his favorite tree. It was a totem of the peace and fascination he found in the outside world and the knowledge it offered.

This January 2024 view captures a stormy, windy kennaook/Cape Grim, on the edge of the Southern Ocean, which Mace calls “the last great wilderness.” Photo credit: Frank Zurek, Hamelmann Communications. Banner photo: In April 2023, Jay Mace, left, poses at Cape Grim in Tasmania, with Roger Marchand during a site visit for the Cloud And Precipitation Experiment at kennaook (CAPE-k). Photo credit: Heath Powers, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Today, Mace is an atmospheric scientist and professor at the University of Utah. He’s an avid hiker and camper. He bikes to work. He and his wife own a cabin in Idaho. He even paints, in oils, the nature he still loves. Always landscapes, always in one take, and always while seated outdoors. It’s a style of painting called en plein air, a French expression meaning “in the open air.”

His other dream was to get far enough away from Southington, Ohio, that he would never work in an auto plant. His father did assembly line work. Many cousins and uncles too. For him? Nope, never, and no way.

Mace calls his parents “progressive thinkers,” imbued with the sense of optimism the working class had in those days. “I picked that up.”

Optimism, the woods, and an affinity for science “were a big part of forming the way I looked at the world,” he says.

But optimism is not the same as having enough money for college. Halfway through his senior year of high school, Mace decided to join the U.S. Navy.

“My plans had not changed,” he says. “I was going to escape one way or the other. My ticket out was through the military.”

After basic training, only one Navy specialty resonated with Mace’s inclination toward the natural sciences: meteorology.

“They needed weather people,” he says, although he turned down an offer to be a nuclear engineer. “I’m an atmospheric scientist largely because I didn’t want to live in a submarine or the bottom of some ship. I wanted to be able to see the sky.”

University of Utah atmospheric scientist Jay Mace, center, is about to release a balloon over the Southern Ocean.

The most pristine air on Earth

In late April 2024, Mace traveled to kennaook/Cape Grim, a wind-whipped coastal strip in northwestern Tasmania. The air blowing in from the Southern Ocean there is so pure that climate modelers use it as a proxy for Earth’s pre-industrial atmosphere.

Mace is co-leading the Cloud And Precipitation Experiment at kennaook (CAPE-k), a field campaign from April 2024 to September 2025.

He and co-principal investigator Roger Marchand, a research professor at the University of Washington, oversee teams collecting and analyzing measurements of some little-known atmospheric conditions and processes over the Southern Ocean.

Despite its critical importance to global climate, the Southern Ocean has historically been under-observed, largely because it is so remote and stormy.

CAPE-k is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) with help from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s government agency for scientific research. CSIRO and BOM jointly manage the Kennaook/Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, where CAPE-k is sited.

The word “kennaook”—the aboriginal name for Cape Grim—is “a very important thing to remember,” says Mace. “We stand on their ground.”

The main instruments for CAPE-k are part of a multi-container mobile observatory operated by DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility. ARM, whose data go back more than 30 years, maintains three fixed and three mobile observatories in climate-critical regions of the world. Mace took part in some of ARM’s earliest campaigns as a graduate student in the early 1990s.

A watercolor by Jay Mace.

Big questions of climate science are found in the troposphere

For the last decade, Mace has focused his research on the lower troposphere, where low-level clouds reside and where “the big questions in climate science are,” he says.

Mace describes such clouds as “a machine that moves water along a conveyor belt that goes from aerosols and cloud condensation nuclei to precipitation.”

At the same time, those clouds reflect sunlight.

In all, this aerosol-cloud-precipitation-radiation conveyor belt “is the key to how sensitive Earth’s climate is to increased carbon dioxide,” he says, with the Southern Ocean as a dramatic example “because it’s such a huge ocean. The same thing is happening in the northern oceans, but less of it.”

Mace, Marchand and others first conceived of CAPE-k in 2021 as a capstone Southern Ocean investigation.

“I had to go down there,” says Mace of this remote tip of Tasmanian coastline, marked by intervals of pristine air. “It’s the last remnant of pre-industrial Earth, the last great wilderness, the natural world before human beings.”

Over the next year and a half, CAPE-k is poised to collect data on the seasonal cycle of Southern Ocean clouds and precipitation. From these data, global climate models will gain precision.

The science prospects for CAPE-k are solid, says Mace, but it’s also an experience “that takes me all the way back to sitting in my tree in the woods. That’s as pure as you can get. There’s a direct line between the Southern Ocean and that tree in the woods.”

Read the complete story about Utah’s Jay Mace, posted by DOE’s  Office of Science, here.