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Dipping a toe into the world of ocean model engineering and development

By Neil Malan, PhD student, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Author Neil Malan aboard the RV Melville, collecting data on the Agulhas System (Picture: James Campbell)

Earlier this year, during a two-month research visit to Germany, I was able to attend the Layered Ocean Model (LOM) Workshop held in Copenhagen, Denmark.

I was lucky enough, along with Dr Bjorn Backeberg of the Nansen-Tutu Centre for Marine Environmental Research at the University of Cape Town, to be invited to attend by the organising committee and have my trip funded by the US Naval Research Laboratory.

The LOM bi-annual meeting is aimed at developers and users of layered ocean models, defined as "models that allow layer vertical grid spacing to vary in time". This includes the HYCOM (Hybrid Coordinate Ocean Model) run at the Nansen-Tutu Centre in Cape Town.

The workshop was my first venture into the rather shadowy seeming world of ocean model development, and it turned out to be a most interesting one …

What is important about ocean models?

Ocean models (of which various types exist) are mostly research community maintained and developed. These models have required decades of research and development by teams of researchers from all over the world to advance them to their current accuracy in simulating the dynamics of the world's oceans.

'Why should we care?' you may ask. Well, these thousands of lines of computer code are the basis for the ocean component of the coupled weather and climate models which give us information about our weather and climate, ranging from climate change predictions to 'should I take a rain jacket on this walk?'

The same model code is also used for various ocean research applications, as well as in industry, for example in harbour construction or oil exploration.

The role of diversity in ocean modelling

The small, focused workshop in Copenhagen was attended by many top ocean modellers from influential institutions such as the US Naval Research Laboratories, who are heavily involved in operation ocean forecasting, to NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, who are more focused on climate modelling.

An interesting outcome of the wide-ranging discussions (some of which went straight over the heads of those of us without a background in computer engineering!) was the need to maintain a diversity of different types of ocean modelling systems, especially in the climate modelling arena. If we were to 'put all our eggs in one basket" so to speak, it is possible that our knowledge could be shaped by the peculiarities and biases of a particular model, without having anything to compare it against. A healthy ecosystem of different ocean models helps to prevent this.

Southern African oceans still a sticky problem

I was pleasantly surprised at the interest in my talk on "HYCOM on the Agulhas Shelf", as well as the interest in the Agulhas Current in general.

This interest is due to the fact that the global-scale simulations run by the large international institutions still struggle to accurately represent the extremely dynamic and energetic Agulhas Current system. This gives the regional simulations which we run in South Africa a strong international relevance, as we keep striving to improve the model simulations of the patch of ocean on our doorsteps, which will hopefully one day improve our ability to predict climate change, rainfall and the safety of our coastline.

Overall, despite the sometimes intimidating and specialist nature of these workshops, the attendance of SAEON researchers allows us to keep a finger on the pulse of the latest developments in the high-tech world of ocean simulation, which helps to keep our work relevant on the international stage.


Delegates attending the 2015 Layered Ocean Model Workshop held in Copenhagen

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