Climate change is one of the most urgent issues facing humanity and life on Earth. Better predictions of future climate change are needed, so that measures to reduce its impact and cope with its effects can be put in place. However, improving these predictions requires better knowledge of how the global climate system functions, and this knowledge is currently incomplete. A critical gap concerns understanding of the uptake of heat and carbon by the oceans.
The Southern Ocean - the vast ocean that encircles Antarctica - is critically important in this regard. Because of the nature of its circulation, its physical and chemical properties, and its connections with the rest of the globe, it accounts for around half of the oceanic uptake of carbon, and around three-quarters of the heat uptake. However, because of its remoteness and hostile environment, with stormy seas, heavy sea ice in places, and long periods of darkness in winter, the Southern Ocean is also the least-measured and least-understood ocean in the world. One consequence of this lack of understanding is that the representations of the Southern Ocean in many of the models used to create future climate projections are not fit for purpose.
The Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transports (ORCHESTRA) project represents a linking together of many of the major environmental research institutes in the UK, who will work with national and international partners to address these issues. It will combine a combination of data collection, novel analyses and computer simulations to radically improve our ability to measure, understand and predict the circulation and role in global climate of the Southern Ocean.
Data collection will include major ship-based expeditions across the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean to determine the basin-scale transports of heat and carbon in all the different ocean layers (near-surface, intermediate, abyssal). It will include the use of novel technology and unmanned vehicles to collect data over much longer periods and much greater areas than ships alone could allow, and flights with research aircraft to determine climatically important transfers of heat and carbon between the atmosphere and ocean in all different conditions of sea ice. Informed by the new understanding that these field campaigns will produce, improvements to ocean models will be proposed and tested, and the improvements delivered to climate modellers so that better future projections can be produced.
The benefits to be gained by improving climate prediction are difficult to overstate, with more effective strategies for dealing with climate change becoming feasible, and better planning assumptions made possible for industry, commerce and other sectors. The value of the Southern Ocean carbon sink was recently estimated to be in the trillions of dollars, but with uncertainty in the billions concerning how it will change in future: narrowing this uncertainty is thus a strong economic priority, as well as a scientific and societal one.
Funder: NERC Cross-centre National capability
Project start date: April 2016
Project end date: March 2021
View the project website
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Dr Tim Smyth
Head of Science - Marine Biogeochemistry and Ocean observations
Dr Ming-Xi Yang, Dr Tim Smyth, Dr Tom Bell , Dr Vassilis Kitidis, E. Malcolm S. Woodward, Ian Brown, Professor Philip Nightingale