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Understanding the ocean with high resolution models

A still from an animation showing swirls of water going from purple through to orange, around the Southern Ocean.

Eddies in the Southern Ocean, from a visualisation done by Dr Isabella Rosso and the team at NCI’s VizLab.

The NCI’s high-performance computing facilities are enabling researchers to model the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere at an unprecedented level of detail.

Professor Matthew England from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science is working “to understand the role of ocean circulation in the global climate system.” Much of his work focuses on the Southern Ocean, which profoundly affects both the global and Australian climate.

The Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica, is particularly important to global climate, as the ice sheets and land ice stored on the continent are central to the question of sea-level rise in the coming decades. A slight warming of the Southern Ocean could precipitate melting of the ice shelves and marine grounded ice sheets, potentially leading to dangerous sea level rise.

Professor England has been running ocean circulation models at NCI and its predecessors for over 25 years, and he says that each computer upgrade gives them new information. “Every time we get an increase in computational power from NCI, we increase the resolution of our models and that increase in resolution reveals new physics we hadn’t previously understood.”

“We’re actually making discoveries about ocean physics that we never knew about before the higher resolution came along,” he says. Since satellites started being used for data-gathering, eddies in the Southern Ocean have become better understood. Now, computational modelling is allowing researchers to get below that scale and see new features affecting the bigger picture. Those features, says Professor England, “are also involved in important things like transferring heat around the ocean and impacting the large scale circulation.”

Professor England says that “computational leaps that are being made are really orders of magnitude advances every decade.” When it comes to the benefits of using NCI, “it’s an enabling technology, the more computational power we have, the more ocean physics we’ve discovered in the past and I’m sure that’s going to be the same in the future.”

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