Satellite image of algae bloom in the sea off South Africa
Satellite view of the ocean “whirls”. In this view, phytoplankton blooms are shown swirling in the oceans around South Africa and the Agulhas Current. These blooms act as tracers that highlight the ocean fine-scale circulations interacting with each other.
Photo: NASA/Ocean Biology Processing Group

Research on the ocean circulation’s influence on climate receives large EU grant


The research project "WHIRLS" receives €12 million from the European Research Council, where the University of Gothenburg's share is a total of approximately €4 million (SEK 50 million). The project will investigate the influence of fine-scale ocean currents off the coast of South Africa on the global climate and ecosystems.
”It’s really fantastic that we get to be part of such a large EU investment. It strengthens the University of Gothenburg's position in ocean research on the global stage,” says Sebastiaan Swart, professor of oceanography, Department of Marine Sciences, and a PI of the project.

South of Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Southern Ocean meet in an area called the Cape Basin, which is a part of the Agulhas Current System. This region has the strongest and most energetic currents in the world’s ocean and play a key role in the global ocean circulation, and therefore strongly influences global climate. In particular, these currents ‘leak’ heat and salt from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, balancing the overturning circulation of the whole Atlantic and influencing the weather and climate we experience in Europe.   

Sebastiaan Swart
Sebastiaan Swart, professor of oceanography, Department of Marine Sciences, and a PI of the project.

"There is already a great deal of knowledge about how the larger and slower currents work in this region. But WHIRLS will focus on understanding how the smaller currents (1-100 km in size), so-called "whirls", affect the climate, ocean circulation, and the marine biome. Our current observations and models do a poor job at resolving these fine-scale currents. Without knowledge about these fine-scale ocean circulations and how they move around properties like heat and carbon both horizontally and vertically in the ocean, we can’t fully predict how our ocean impacts climate now and in the future,” explains Sebastiaan Swart.

University of Gothenburg will play a central part

In the WHIRLS project, Sebastiaan Swart and his research team, who specialise in upper ocean dynamics and air-sea fluxes, will work together with biogeochemists, oceanographers, and climate modellers from France, Germany, and South Africa. The collaboration means that the researchers can benefit from each other's experience and expertise to co-design experiments and also co-analyse the data that is collected.
The University of Gothenburg will play a central part in the project by deploying state-of-the-art ocean robots to collect these novel observations to get high-resolution views of the ocean.

researcher preparing
Underwater robotic glider is being prepared on the deck of the research ship for deployment in the Agulhas Current System by WHIRLS PI Sebastiaan Swart, Post Doc Isabelle Giddy, and PhD Estel Font, all Department of Marine Sciences.
Photo: Johan Edholm

The grant will be used to purchase additional ocean robots that dive to 1km depths, and autonomous surface vehicles that will be on multi-month missions at a time.

“This strengthens Sweden’s capability in making novel, autonomous observations of the ocean. The grant will also enlarge the research group with PhDs, Post Docs, senior scientists, and a project/data manager,” says Sebastiaan Swart.

New view of the ocean to improve climate models

A unique part of the project will also provide new insights on how these fine-scale ocean circulations impact the marine biome. This includes aspects like biodiversity, biological productivity and how phytoplankton take up carbon.

Data image of whirls, jets and eddies
Fine-scale processes appear almost everywhere in the ocean, here outside the south of Africa. This view of relative vorticity (fluid rotation) in the km-scale model INALT60 will be used in WHIRLS.
Photo: Arne Biastoch, GEOMAR

The project will also be able to provide a new view of how the ocean’s fine-scale currents impact air-sea transfer of heat and carbon at a resolution never achieved before.

“This provides a step towards advancing the understanding of how the ocean and atmosphere systems interact.” says Marcel du Plessis, scientist in the same research group and who will also be involved in WHIRLS.

“It is fundamental that we include these fine-scale processes in climate models, thereby improving their accuracy so we can predict and mitigate against our changing climate,” says Sabrina Speich, professor and also a PI in the project from ENS Paris.

underwater robotic glider on deck
An underwater robotic glider that will be used in WHIRLS. These gliders dive to depths of 1km every 5 hours and remain on missions lasting 6-12 months at a time. They measure ocean currents, temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, and oxygen.
Photo: Marcel du Plessis

Text: Annika Wall


Project: WHIRLS: The impacts of ocean fine-scale whirls on climate and ecosystems

Funded by: the European Research Council (ERC). The point of the ERC Synergy Grant is to bring together researchers with different expertise to work on very complex problems that no person or institute can address on its own.

Total amount: €12 million for 6 years duration. University of Gothenburg will be the biggest beneficiary of the grant. A total of approximately €4 million (SEK 50 million) will be coming to the Department of Marine Sciences, including contributions from the University of Gothenburg’s Vice-Chancellor strategic financial funding.

Participating investigators and universities: Arne Biastoch - GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany, Sabrina Speich - Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris, France, and Sarah Fawcett - University of Cape Town, South Africa.

For more information on Polar Gliders Research Group.