What do we do with oceanographic data?

How data collected on marine research vessels fuels the research and policy making of climate modelling?
19 December 2022

Interview with 

Emma Boland, BAS


the flag of antarctica


Emma Boland, from the British Antarctic Survey, specialises in modelling the Antarctic ocean, to see how the changes in salinity and carbon dioxide are affecting how water around the south poles moves. She takes much of her data from research vessels, such as the ‘David Attenborough’, and spoke about how this collected data is behind the forefront of research and science policy.

Emma - I mostly use computer models in my work. So I look at representations of the ocean, in something that's a bit like a version of Minecraft, but mostly just the ocean in it. And what we do is we do experiments on the ocean that we can't do in real life, but the models are only as good as our observations because the only way to get a good model is to compare it with the observations to check if it's doing a good job or not. So we really, really need things like the ‘Sir David Attenborough’ to go out and take these important measurements for us so we can check our models. And the ‘Sir David Attenborough’ is particularly important because it's going to spend half the year in the Southern ocean that surrounds Antarctica. The Southern Ocean is what we call a data desert. We really don't have very many good observations of the ocean there. That's partly because it's so inhospitable. It's got very strong winds, strong waves, and half the year there's lots of sea ice surrounding it. And also because it's just very far away and hard to get to. So every single measurement that the ‘Sir David Attenborough’ takes is going to be really valuable.

Will - And what sort of data would you be hoping that it takes in order to help your research?

Emma - Well, really importantly, we just need more measurements of basic things like temperature and salinity as we go down into the ocean. So satellites can look at the surface of the ocean, but they can't tell us what's going on inside. We really need to go out there and take physical measurements. So one of the things that the ‘Sir David Attenborough’ will be doing is dropping pieces of equipment off the side that will go further down deep, deep, deep kilometers deep to take temperature and salinity measurements from down deep. The other thing that's great about the Sir David Attenborough is it's really going to act as a kind of mothership for lots of extra measuring equipment. So we'll send out things like Boaty McBoatface, which is what we call an autosub. It's a little yellow submarine that's controlled from the ship. We can send that out to take measurements under the sea ice where we can't get traditional equipment.

Will - Boaty McBoatface was tragically absent from my visit, which is a real great shame. But it's good to hear it's still doing good work. What is the data being sent back helping to inform you about current movements in the South Pole and how that spreads out into the rest of the ocean?

Emma - To understand what the measurements tell us, we first have to understand why the Southern ocean is so important. So it might feel very far away. It is very far away from us here in Cambridge, but the Southern ocean plays a really, really important role in the climate system. In fact, it plays a bit of an outsized role. It's about a third of the ocean, but it takes up about three quarters of the heat and half of the carbon dioxide that the ocean takes up for us. So it really plays a kind of outsized role. We sometimes call it the lungs of the ocean. So a lot of heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere enter into the ocean there and they get locked away for hundreds or even thousands of years. So it is doing us a kind of great service in that if that heat and carbon dioxide wasn't taken up by the ocean it would stay in the atmosphere and make the global warming that we experience that much worse. So it's doing this really important role of taking up heat and carbon dioxide, but we don't have very many measurements of that going on, so we don't really understand exactly what controls those numbers. So what determines how much heat and carbon dioxide go into the southern ocean? Well, we don't really know. So we need more measurements to try and work out the processes that are going on down there.

Will - With a changing climate now that we have. Do you expect these movements and these tides and these currents to change in any significant way?

Emma - We do expect changes. So especially in the Arctic we've got sea ice melting very rapidly. In the Antarctic, it's more of a mixed picture. We've got some areas that are losing a lot of sea ice, are there areas where sea ice is growing and that changes the amount of really cold, salty water around Antarctica and that water then enters into the rest of the ocean and affects the whole of the circulation of the oceans. So we're already finding through the measurements that people take for the British Antarctic survey on previous research cruises, that these kind of currents are changing. The amount of cold dense water that's being made around Antarctica is reducing and we don't really know if that's gonna continue into the future. And that's where the models come in. If we can model these processes and find similar things going on in the models, then we can play the model forward and see what might happen in the future.

Will - All of this research is all well and good, but if it can't inspire a policy change or a change in the public's outlook, then perhaps it isn't truly serving its purpose. So how can expeditions and research like this help to inform governmental policy and public perception?

Emma - Well, that's very important to mention because the British Antarctic Survey are representatives of the UK government, so we have a really important role to play. First of all, the science, as I discussed, is really important to help us understand how the climate is changing, and going to change. If we don't understand how the climate is going to change, we can't make effective policies to deal with that change. And the other thing is that our work really highlights the importance of this amazing ecosystem out there. So all the animals and wildlife that you see, even though the wildlife that you can see, there's very important ecosystems happening in the ocean with krill and all sorts of things. So the British Antarctic surveys work in Antarctica. What we hope is that we can bring the importance of those, um, environments home and inform the government and inform the public of how important they are, how important it's to protect them. I don't know if you remember on Frozen Planet a few years ago, some of our researchers revealed for the first time the extent of plastic pollution that was making its way all the way to those really pristine environments in Antarctica. And that had a massive follow on impact on changing the way that the UK looks at plastic waste. So it's really important to keep raising awareness of the kind of importance of these environments and how they're changing.


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