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WHIRLS: Small ocean swirls have big impacts

The interplay between heat, carbon, and the broader climate is significantly influenced by the oceans, which act as both a repository and a source of heat, mitigating the impacts of global warming and shaping climate patterns. 

Additionally, the ocean plays a crucial role in carbon sequestration, with currents distributing it throughout the marine ecosystem, where it is utilized by phytoplankton at the base of the marine food web, enhancing marine biodiversity. 

Moreover, sequestering carbon in the ocean removes it from the atmosphere for extended periods, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.

The WHIRLS project 

Aiming to delve deeper into the finer details of these oceanic processes, the WHIRLS project, backed by a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council (ERC), is set to make significant advances in understanding of the oceans’ smaller circulation patterns known as “whirls.” 

“WHIRLS is basically about fine-scale processes having large-scale impacts,” explained project leader Arne Biastoch, a scientist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

“Whirls refer to processes on scales of less than 100 kilometers. This might still sound large, but such patterns are small in the context of the global ocean, and are currently poorly resolved in ocean observations and climate models.”

Focus of the research 

The project, set to receive almost 12 million Euros funding over six years, will leverage state-of-the-art observational tools, ranging from ship-based measurements to satellites, aiming for a three-dimensional, comprehensive understanding of oceanic processes. 

The Agulhas Current System near South Africa, known for its dynamic nature and significant influence on regional and global climate, will be at the forefront of this research.

“The Agulhas system is not only unique in terms of its vigorous circulation, intense air-sea heat and carbon uptake and the particularly high productivity and diversity of its marine ecosystem,” said Sarah Fawcett, a biogeochemical oceanographer at the University of Cape Town. “It also plays a key role in the global ocean circulation and strongly influences regional and global climate.”

Significance of the project 

Underlining the significance of WHIRLS, GEOMAR Director Dr. Katja Matthes has expressed her pride in the project’s coordination and the international collaboration it entails. 

“GEOMAR is proud to coordinate WHIRLS as another project funded by an ERC Synergy Grant, and thus contribute to a better understanding of future changes in the ocean and the climate system. The funding underlines our leading role in cutting-edge research and recognises Arne Biastoch’s internationally renowned expertise in ocean and climate modeling,” said Dr. Matthes.

“I am particularly pleased about the international cooperation that involves experts from four different countries on two continents. This impressively underlines the internationality of GEOMAR research. Congratulations to the four principal investigators.”

In conclusion, WHIRLS stands poised to unravel the complexities of the ocean’s influence on our climate, contributing to global scientific priorities and the pursuit of sustainable development.

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