‘If you’re an oceanographer, people immediately think you study whales’

21 Nov 2018

Dr Neil Swart, research scientist at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. Image: ECCC

When he isn’t telling people he doesn’t study whales, South African research scientist Dr Neil Swart examines the complexity of climate change.

After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical oceanography at the University of Cape Town, research scientist Dr Neil Swart took part in several research cruises into the Southern Ocean, including one three-month mission to Antarctica.

Following a short stint visiting the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, he moved to Canada in 2008 to start his PhD and graduated from the University of Victoria in British Columbia in 2013.

Swart did some postdoctoral work before taking up his current role as a research scientist at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis as part of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was lucky to have some particularly motivating teachers along the way who inspired me, and a host of supervisors and mentors who guided me.

I remember my high school geography teacher describing the South African research outpost on Marion Island in the South Indian Ocean. It really sparked something, in part because it seemed so foreign to us in landlocked Johannesburg at the time. His advice was, if you want to go, make yourself useful and become a diesel mechanic.

I never became a mechanic, but about five years after that I found myself travelling to Marion Island as a student oceanographer aboard the research vessel SA Agulhas. That seagoing experience ultimately inspired me to pursue a career in research.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I work in a team that develops computational models used for projecting future climate change, and for understanding past climate change. My research focuses on the role of the ocean and, in particular, how the ocean absorbs heat and CO2 from the atmosphere.

Most recently, we’ve focused on the ocean surrounding Antarctica, known as the Southern Ocean. Observations tell us that it has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the global ocean, and now we’ve been able to show that this is due to an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans with the depletion of ozone.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Most people don’t realise it, but the ocean absorbs more than 90pc of the heat associated with human-led climate change, and it also takes up about 25pc of our CO2 emissions every year.

If the ocean didn’t absorb heat and carbon in this way, the climate change we experience at the surface would be far more intense. Much of this heat and carbon uptake occurs through the Southern Ocean, resulting in direct impacts (such as causing sea-levels to rise) as well as less-direct impacts (such as destabilising the Antarctic ice sheet).

For these reasons, understanding the Southern Ocean is critical to being able to make accurate projections of future climate change, which in turn are required to plan our adaptation strategies.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

I think that one of the biggest challenges in climate science is accurately explaining the uncertainties in future climate projections to policymakers, planners and the general public.

A major technical challenge lies in the massive computational and big-data burdens associated with climate models running at higher spatial resolution and including ever-more complex processes.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

If you ever tell somebody that you are an oceanographer, they immediately think that you study whales. Then you have the delicate task of trying not to disappoint them as you explain that you actually work on ocean temperature change from behind your computer, and almost never see whales!

More seriously, I think one common misconception is that we base our evidence for climate change only on computer models. The reality is that we have many independent lines of observational evidence that the climate is warming, and models are just one tool that we use to understand these changes and how they might evolve in the future.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

One of the most critical areas of research is in better understanding the interaction between the major ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland as well as the ocean and climate system. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly clear that the West Antarctic ice sheet can be destabilised by ocean warming, but there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the timescales involved.

We’re only in the infancy of representing ocean ice sheet interactions in climate models, but we urgently need to develop this capacity further in order to make more reliable projections of future sea level rise, which will be one of the biggest impacts of climate change.

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