Extreme sea-level events are an ever-growing threat to coastal communities across our planet due to rising seas. NOC scientists are at the cutting edge of research into why our sea-levels are rising, the likelihood of resulting extreme events and cutting-edge solutions to protect our coastlines.
For this month’s scientist spotlight, Physical Oceanographer Dr Kiko Calafat gives us insight into current research on these hot ocean topics and how his passion for the ocean led him to his fascinating role at NOC.
What is your role in research at the NOC?
I am an oceanographer doing research on the physics of sea-level changes, the influence of climate change on extreme weather and, increasingly, the transport of heat by ocean circulation. My research is directed at addressing a range of fundamental questions about these topics, such as the relative roles of melting ice sheets and ocean thermal expansion in sea-level rise, whether climate change is making extreme weather events more likely, or the extent to which climate change affects the northward transport of heat in the Atlantic.
To study these topics, I analyse observations from a variety of in-situ and space-based instruments as well as data from numerical climate models using theory and cutting-edge statistical methods. The interdisciplinary nature of my research means that I often work collaboratively with scientists across multiple disciplines and backgrounds, and, at NOC, I have been involved in projects addressing a wide range of research questions related to the ocean and the climate.
What drew you to working in this area?
I came into the field by chance. As an undergraduate student in Physics, I was more attracted to quantum mechanics than to Earth science, largely because the former is generally heavier on mathematics, particularly linear algebra, which I have always loved. After graduating, I was looking for a job and stumbled into an opportunity to do a PhD on sea-level rise.
Being originally from Mallorca and passionate about snorkelling in the beaches of Mallorca, the idea of doing research on a topic that seemed so pertinent to my life by the sea got me interested. I decided to apply and I got the scholarship. It turns out that sea-level rise is a wonderful metric for climate change as it primarily reflects land-ice melting and heat uptake by the ocean.
The fact that I was able to see and study how climate change was unfolding in real time through my job was fascinating to me and so I decided that this was the best place for me to spend my career. I obtained my PhD in 2010 and joined the NOC in 2011, and to this day I am still doing research on sea level, although in recent years I have branched out into other areas of research such as extreme weather events and large-scale ocean circulation.
What science are you currently working on?
Currently, my research is organised around three core themes, namely ocean heat transport, extreme weather events, and mean sea level.
In the EPOC (Explaining and Predicting the Ocean Conveyor) project, we are investigating the extent to which the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) acts as a conveyor belt by carrying warm water from the tropics into the North Atlantic. By redistributing heat around the ocean, the AMOC is believed to play a key role in regulating the Earth’s climate. In EPOC, I aim to quantify meridional heat and freshwater transport across the Atlantic Ocean using data from satellite altimetry, satellite gravimetry and Argo floats.
Another interesting project is CHAMFER (UK Coastal Hazards: Multi-hazard Controls on Flooding and Erosion), in which I will analyse data from model simulations using advanced statistical methods to assess how future changes in climate will affect drivers of coastal hazards at the UK coast.
Finally, I am also involved in various projects (Sea Level CCI+, EuroSea, ISSI International Team) in which we investigate the causes of long-term sea level changes at a local scale, with emphasis on understanding how sea-level rise at the coast relates to changes in the open ocean.
What is your favourite thing about the work you do?
I am motivated by the fact that understanding climate change and adapting to its impacts is one of the greatest challenges of our time. It is thrilling to think that I am contributing to this quest in my own small way through furthering the progress of science.
I wake up most mornings excited to go to work and begin my day and love the fact that no two days are ever the same. Another aspect of my job that I find fascinating is the need to be creative, solve challenging problems and come up with new ideas on a daily basis. Collaborating internationally with a community of scientists interested in discussing and sharing ideas about interesting topics is also very appealing to me.
What impact does your science have on society?
A large part of my research focuses on areas that support the delivery of public benefit through scientific evidence, such as sea-level rise and extreme weather events. The CHAMFER project, for example, aims to translate new and existing scientific knowledge into beneficial impact by applying such knowledge to tackle issue of coastal management and protection and by engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, decision makers, and the public.
Another example is my recent work showing that both natural and human factors have already altered the likelihood of storm surge extremes in Europe. Such knowledge is crucial to the success of adaption plans and will support coastal planners and stakeholders to make more confident decisions. Furthermore, while scientific curiosity is a prime driver of much of my science, my research papers are always written in such a way that the potential public benefits of the research are clearly articulated.
Watch... Into the Blue Podcast
What factors are increasing the likelihood of extreme sea levels?
Read Kiko’s recent studies:
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