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Ocean Currents and Climate Change

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Sixth Form students had the opportunity to learn more about climate change and the physics of the oceans from Old Boy Meric Srokosz (1966-1973), a professor at the National Oceanography Centre and the University of Southampton.

Professor Srokosz spoke to a Year 12 Physics class about his work in oceanography. He described how ocean waves can be measured from space using satellite data and showed the computer modelling and mathematics that goes into predicting wave patterns and forms. He also discussed the challenges of fitting models to observational data.

Moving on to talk briefly about climate change, he spoke about biological and physical processes in the ocean that contribute to absorbing carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere, pointing out that global warming would happen much faster without the ocean. He discussed his work on ocean circulation and currents, and how physical currents send plastic debris into even the most remote areas of the ocean.

These themes recurred in Professor Srokosz’s afternoon address to the whole of Year 13 about oceans and climate change.

He began with a question: ‘What will happen the day after tomorrow?’ This was a reference to the 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, in which a slight change to the North Atlantic current causes a massive climate shift. Could this really happen?

Professor Srokosz talked about the Rapid Climate Change programme (RAPID; www.rapid.ac.uk), which for the past ten years has been monitoring the ocean currents on a daily basis using an array of instruments set up between Morocco and Florida. The data collected shows that an unexpected dip in circulation in January 2010 directly correlated to a severe winter in the UK and a corresponding rise in sea level in New York.

He went on to describe the potentially devastating effects that changes in the ocean’s temperature and acidity could have on the planet, affecting plankton and coral reefs, hurricane formation, sea level and much more. He also put this in perspective, pointing out that a rise in sea level of just one metre would displace around ten million people in Bangladesh.

Looking ahead, Professor Srokosz said that computer models can be used to study future scenarios to see the effects of high or low carbon emissions on the oceans, and the resulting effect on climate. Finally, he discussed what humans can do to care for the oceans and the Earth and suggested some of the simple things everyone can change to reduce their negative impact.

Professor Srokosz’s fascinating presentations ended in question and answer sessions. The Sixth Form students made the most of the opportunity to ask intelligent and thoughtful questions.

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