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Going deep to understand Earth’s sea level rise

Published: 
15 August 2017

It is a vital sign of planet Earth.

Monitoring the behaviour, quality and crucially the sea level itself is becoming an ever more intrinsic part of how we prepare for our future.

With increasing urbanisation and migration of communities towards the coast, planning for the predicted rise in sea levels is becoming an acutely pressing issue.

Uncovering a fresh insight into how our oceans behave and what to do with that data in terms of shaping policy are areas where the University of Southampton is world-leading in its influence.

Secrets of the deep

Three kilometres under the Southern Ocean is where researchers have most recently been extracting key information that sheds new light on how climate change is affecting the sea.

Our researchers are now studying exciting new data gathered by the unmanned submersible christened Boaty McBoatface which has been uncovering fresh secrets of the deep.

We can see what sort of transformation processes are happening – this will enable us to diagnose how the ocean is responding to the changing climate in the southern hemisphere.

Dr Eleanor Frajka-Williams - DynOPO investigator

The DynOPO (Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow) project is a NERC-funded programme led by Alberto Naveira Garabato at the University, in collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre.

Boaty’s debut mission was to build a fuller picture of how water flows through the Orkney passage – a key choke point through which the waters of Antarctic flow to all major ocean basins.

DynOPO investigator Dr Eleanor Frajka-Williams explained: “By looking at this specific location we can see what sort of transformation processes are happening – this will enable us to diagnose how the ocean is responding to the changing climate in the southern hemisphere.

“One unique aspect about Boaty is that it can ‘fly’ back and forth it along defined paths, essentially filling in a grid of data in a way we have never been able to before. I am not sure any other groups have this capability.

“This data – along with the other data collected during the research expedition - has given us a window onto deep sea ocean physics. We are seeing that the deep currents flow alongside the bathymetry is setting off dynamical processes that are likely to play an important role in transforming the water as it passes through this narrow choke point.

“The data collected during the DynOPO project will be used to develop our understanding of how small-scale physics in the ocean are shaping the warming of the oceans across the globe, as this water eventually makes its way into all the other oceans in the world.”

Deciphering the data

Working alongside Eleanor will be students who, as part of their course, will be helping to decipher that data.

Eleanor said: “We have an excellent working relationship with the National Oceanography Centre which students also benefit from.

“We take our second year students on a tour of the Marine Autonomous and Robotics Facility, where Boaty was developed, and in our class on ocean observing, our students learn about how we use modern platforms, including Boaty and other underwater submersibles, to make observations.”

Students are also playing a key role in contributing to the developing picture of how sea level data can be used in planning for the future.

The best defence

Under the tutelage of Robert Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering, and Ivan Haigh, Associate Professor in Coastal Oceanography, undergraduates are actively contributing to real-world projects, gathering information is used by policy makers in planning future flood defences.

The academics were also responsible for producing a ‘report card’ style assessment of how climate change is impacting on coastal flooding as part of the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership Science Review.

The review looked at how climate change had affected sea levels over the past ten years and what the consequences of that impact were across a number of sectors.

Led by Ivan, the SurgeWatch website was built to systematically record and better understand coastal flooding by compiling a database of UK coastal flood events and their consequences.

We do not know how fast sea level will rise, so we look at planning a series of options and work out a pathway to ensure an effective response. If sea levels rise faster than expected, we can accelerate our movement down the pathway. It is similar to how a flood warning system works over a matter of hours to warn communities, except this is over a period of decades or longer.

Robert Nicholls - Professor of Coastal Engineering

Among their conclusions Robert and Ivan suggested that coastal flooding remains one of the most significant risks that the UK faces and that our coastal populations would be significantly impacted if appropriate measures such as defence upgrades were not implemented.

Better use of such data was also one of the key discussion points of a recent international conference co-chaired by Robert in New York City.

The Regional Sea Level Changes and Coastal Impacts Conference was the first of its kind for 11 years and followed repeated warnings that sea water could rise further than previously thought and that extreme coastline events could happen with more regularity.

Rising to the challenge

The University of Southampton is currently involved in a number of projects that highlight how sea level rise data is being used to help plan for the future including a project to redesign the Thames Barrier to ensure it is fit for purpose in the future.

Led by the University of Southampton, and involving the National Oceanography Centre, the E-Rise project is studying the likely lead times for upgrading or replacing coastal defence infrastructure around the UK during the 21st century.

Robert said the project underlines Southampton’s status as world-leading in the area of coastal impact and adaptation.

He said: “The first question to ask is whether you are at risk today and then how might those risks change over time. We then know how much time we have to do something about it and what action we can take.

“There are many possible responses to sea level rise, and it is important to choose the appropriate one.”

Robert said: “We do not know how fast sea level will rise, so we look at planning a series of options and work out a pathway to ensure an effective response. If sea levels rise faster than expected, we can accelerate our movement down the pathway. It is similar to how a flood warning system works over a matter of hours to warn communities, except this is over a period of decades or longer.”

Having students working on gathering the data and working on real-life impact projects and their solution gives them a real advantage once they have graduated.

Robert said: “I think studying at Southampton gives students a state of the art experience. A lot of these issues around sea level are emerging so they are learning the current methods as they are developed.

“It is ‘action research’ – nobody has ever done the studies they are doing before and they are contributing to something bigger with a real legacy.”

Watch the video Boaty McBoatface M44 in Orkney Passage by Eleanor Frajka-WIllaims.

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