I am missing institute seminars! Or: Why we should talk to people who use different methods

You probably know that I have recently changed my research focus quite dramatically, from physical oceanography to science communication research. What that means is that I am a total newbie (well, not total any more, but still on a very steep learning curve), and that I really appreciate listening to talks from a broad range of topics in my new field to get a feel for the lay of the land, so to speak. We do have institute seminars at my current work place, but they only take place like once a month, and I just realized how much I miss getting input on many different things on at least a weekly basis without having to explicitly seek them out. To be fair, it’s also summer vacation time and nobody seems to be around right now…

But anyway, I want to talk about why it is important that people not only of different disciplines talk, but also people from within the same discipline that use different approaches. I’ll use my first article (Simulated impact of double-diffusive mixing on physical and biogeochemical upper ocean properties by Glessmer, Oschlies, and Yool (2008)) to illustrate my point.

I don’t really know how it happened, but by my fourth year at university, I was absolutely determined to work on how this teeny tiny process, double-diffusive mixing (that I had seen in tank experiments in a class), would influence the results of an ocean model (as I was working as student research assistant in the modelling group). And luckily I found a supervisor who would not only let me do it, but excitedly supported me in doing it.

Double-diffusive mixing, for those of you who don’t recall, looks something like this when done in a tank experiment:


And yep, that’s me in the reflection right there :-)

Why should anyone care about something so tiny?

Obviously, there is a lot of value in doing research to satisfy curiosity. But for a lot of climate sciences, one important motivation for the research is that ultimately, we want to be able to predict climate, and that means that we need good climate models. Climate models are used as basis for policy decisions and therefore should represent the past as well as the present and future (under given forcing scenarios) as accurately as possible.

Why do we need to know about double-diffusive mixing if we want to model climate?

Many processes are not actually resolved in the model, but rather “parameterized”, i.e. represented by functions that estimate the influence of the process. And one process that is parameterized is double-diffusive mixing, because its scale (even though in the ocean the scale is typically larger than in the picture above) is too small to be represented.

Mixing, both in ocean models and in the real world, influences many things:

  • By mixing temperature and salinity (not with each other, obviously, but warmer waters with colder, and at the same time more salty waters with less salty), we change density of the water, which is a function of both temperature and salinity. By changing density, we are possibly changing ocean currents.
  • At the same, other tracers are influenced: Waters with more nutrients mix with waters with less, for example. Also changed currents might now supply nutrient-rich waters to other regions than they did before. This has an impact on biogeochemistry — stuff (yes, I am a physical oceanographer) grows in other regions than before, or gets remineralized in different places and at different rates, etc.
  • A change in biogeochemistry combined with a changed circulation can lead to changed air-sea fluxes of, for example, oxygen, CO2, nitrous oxide, or other trace gases, and then you have your influence on the atmosphere right there.

What are the benefits of including tiny processes in climate models?

Obviously, studying the influence of individual processes leads to a better understanding of ocean physics, which is a great goal in itself. But that can also ultimately lead to better models, better predictions, better foundation for policies. But my main point here isn’t even what exactly we need to include or not, it is that we need a better flow of information, and a better culture of exchange.

Talk to each other!

And this is where this tale connects to me missing institute seminars: I feel like there are too few opportunities for exchange of ideas across research groups, for learning about stuff that doesn’t seem to have a direct relevance to my own research (so I wouldn’t know that I should be reading up on it) but that I should still be aware of in case it suddenly becomes relevant.

What we need is that, staying in the example of my double-diffusive mixing article, is that modellers keep exploring the impact of seemingly irrelevant changes to parameterizations or even the way things are coded. And if you aren’t doing it yourself, still keep it in the back of your head that really small changes might have a big influence, and listen to people working on all kinds of stuff that doesn’t seem to have a direct impact on your own research. In case of including the parameterization of double-diffusive mixing, oceanic CO2 uptake is enhanced by approximately 7% of the anthropogenic CO2 signal compared to a control run! And then there might be a climate sensitivity of processes, i.e. double-diffusive mixing happening in many ore places under a climate that has lead to a different oceanic stratification. If we aren’t even aware of this process, how can we possibly hope that our model will produce at least semi-sensible results? And what we also need are that the sea going and/or experimental oceanographers keep pushing their research to the attention of modellers. Or, if we want less pushing: more opportunities for and interest in exchanging with people from slightly different niches than our own!

One opportunity just like that is coming up soon, when I and others will be writing from Grenoble about Elin Darelius and her team’s research on Antarctic stuff in a 12-m-diameter rotating tank. Imagine that. A water tank of that size, rotating! To simulate the influence of Earth’s rotation on ocean current. And we’ll be putting topography in that! Stay tuned, it will get really exciting for all of us, and all of you! :-)

P.S.: My #COMPASSMessageBox for this blogpost below. I really like working with this tool! Read more about the #COMPASSMessageBox.


And here is the full citation: Glessmer, M. S., Oschlies, A., & Yool, A. (2008). Simulated impact of double‐diffusive mixing on physical and biogeochemical upper ocean properties. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 113(C8).

My workshop at MeerKlima.de

Today I ran a workshop at the MeerKlima.de congress in Hamburg: A congress for high school students, organised by a student committee. The large lecture theatre of the chemistry department at the University of Hamburg was crowded for the opening lecture by Mojib Latif:

For my workshop, however, we set a limit of 40 participants due to the size of the room (and the amount of stuff that I had lugged in from Kiel. Yesterday’s ice cubes did very well, btw!). And there were two TV crews and a photographer documenting the awesome ice cube experiment.

You can watch documentaries of the workshop here and here (both in german).

Sneak peak of those two documentaries, obviously only of the tiny little sequences featuring me:

And thanks to Johanna and Dirk for their support before, during and after the workshop!

I also got to watch another workshop by a colleague, who used the Monash Simple Climate Model (which I have talked about here) and I have got to say: That is such an awesome tool for teaching about models and/or the climate system! You will definitely hear more about it in the future as I incorporate it into my own teaching.

And last not least we had a phone call to the Meteor off Peru which rounded off a day full of bumping into people I hadn’t seen in a while. Always great to reconnect with old friends and colleagues!

It was great fun to be part of this congress, and it was a great way to experience first hand how science outreach can work in such a format. Since the congress was curated by the students themselves, many students were very interested and asked great questions. Also, the topics of the workshops corresponded closely to what students really wanted to see and hear. It would be amazing to see this scaled up next year, maybe over several days and with more parallel sessions, so that participating students really get to pick and choose exactly what topic they are interested in and that even more students get the opportunity to experience such an amazing congress!

Using the Monash Simple Climate Model as first exposure to “real” climate models

When talking to the “general public” (which sometimes just means friends or relatives) about working in climate sciences, it is sometimes really difficult to explain what it is we do every day. I have described a very simple way of explaining how climate models work before. But while this might help provide a general idea of what a model does, it does not show us what climate models actually do. But there is a great tool out there that does exactly that!

The Monash simple climate model is a real climate model. When I was still in Kiel, almost 10 years ago, my sailing buddy Janine was working on implementing the first version of that model! And now the DKRZ (the German Climate Computing Center) hosts an web-based interface that lets anyone access the model.

You can build up the climate model step by step, adding representations of processes like ice albedo, clouds, or many other and then compare model runs including those processes with those runs without. You are even shown the difference between those two runs to see how properties like surface temperatures are affected by the process under investigation! And really awesome feature? The visualization of which processes are switched on and off. See below: On the left, in experiment A, all processes are switched on (and therefore shown in the picture on the top left). In Experiment B, on the right, almost all processes have been switched off, only incoming solar radiation and outgoing radiation are active. Looking at the temperatures below, this shows how Experiment B is only influenced by the sun and temperatures are the same along lines of constant latitude. In Experiment A, though, the temperatures are modified by many more processes, and therefore the distribution is a lot more messy.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 14.39.55
Screenshot from http://mscm.dkrz.de, shared under CC BY-NC-SA

You can also look at different climate change scenarios, and you always get to see the CO2 forcing of the respective scenario. You can also compare scenarios with each other (see below). Doing this, you can vary parameters, too, to investigate their impact. You can always look at different model fields like surface and subsurface ocean temperatures, atmospheric temperatures, atmospheric water vapor or snow/ice cover.

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 14.52.44
Screenshot from http://mscm.dkrz.de, shared under CC BY-NC-SA

There are very nice video tutorials for a quick start, and puzzles where you can test how well you understand the model.

I absolutely love this tool, and I wish I was teaching anything related to ocean and climate so I could use it in my teaching. This opens up so many possibilities for inquiry-based learning. Or basically just interest-driven exploration, which would be so fun to initiate and then support! You should definitely check it out! http://mscm.dkrz.de/