Scientist Spotlight – Meet Ocean Modeller Dr Michela De Dominicis

Dr Michela De Dominicis in one of the coastal areas modelled in her work

Our pioneering Marine Systems Modelling (MSM) scientists develop and use innovative, state-of-the-art ocean models to better understand and predict how oceans work, addressing fundamental challenges in society.

We spoke to Dr Michela De Dominicis, Senior Research Scientist at NOC, about her role in vital ocean modelling science, and how it’s helping us to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

What is your role in research at NOC?

I am a physical oceanographer and ocean modeller. My research studies how the ocean interacts with human activities. My work mostly involves running “ocean models” on super computers to understand the changes that might take place in the ocean in the next few decades.

Ocean computer simulations are similar to the ones used for the weather forecast, but for the ocean and instead of predicting what is going to happen tomorrow, I use them to predict the ocean changes in the future decades under different “what-if” scenarios. This means for example investigating what is going to happen in the ocean if we install many offshore renewable energy devices (such as wind turbines and underwater tidal turbines). It means also studying the effects of climate change in coastal areas and understanding if natural habitats could help to protect our coastlines.

What drew you to working in this area?

My career as physical oceanographer started in Italy back in 2007, when I started my PhD and I started developing a forecasting system for the management of oil pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. I thought that the transition from oil pollution to renewable energy was a good one to make in my career and it was almost 8 years ago that I decided to move to NOC in Liverpool to focus on marine renewable energy.

The UK is a very good place to be, given the very large marine energy resources that are available in the seas around the UK. In the 8 years at NOC my research interests have broadened up and I’m now using my modelling skills to address coastal hazards and resilience problems too.

What science are you currently working on?

I am now working on two new projects that both started in 2022.

One is the Physics-to-Ecosystem Level Assessment of Impacts of Offshore Windfarms (PELAgIO) project. The project will assess the impact of offshore wind farms on marine environments, marine wildlife, and wider ecosystem structures, using a combination of ocean models and observations.

We will collect measurements from close to wind farms, to understand changes in the cycling of nutrients, oxygen and phytoplankton that are the bases for the food chain that supports fish, seabirds and big marine mammals. These measurements are extremely important, because they will help us to build a better representation of an offshore wind farm in our ocean model. We can use this increased understanding to then predict future physical and biological changes under different future scenarios of climate change and expansion of offshore wind farm. We will then link those changes with the effects they will have on marine populations at all levels of the food webs.

Another is the UK Coastal Hazards, Multi-hazard Controls on Flooding and Erosion (CHAMFER) project. I am building a new coastal ocean model for the UK coast, that should help to better represent how tides, storm surges, waves and rivers interact in the coastal areas. We will use it to run present and future climate simulations. This is extremely important to understand the response of coastal areas to extreme storms now and with future sea level rise, and what the possible coastal protection measures are. These measures include understanding the coastal protection benefits of natural habitats, known also as nature-based coastal defences. This connects to one of the last projects I have been working on, ANCODE, that was about understanding if mangroves are effective at reducing the water level reaching the coast of the Pearl River Delta (in China) during extreme events such as heavy storms or typhoons.

What is your favourite thing about the work you do?

Models are powerful tools to help resolving real life problems and taking decisions. It is a virtual world (virtual ocean) where we can imagine different possible realities before choosing (ideally) what to go or not go for.

It is always the same thing, but also always different. Same tools (ocean models), but an endless list of possible applications. In recent years, I have run simulations of a massive expansion of tidal stream energy in Scottish Waters under present and future climate, but I have also studied how mangroves can protect the world largest “mega-cities” in the Pearl River Delta in China.

What impact does your science have on society?

My work helps developing both climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Untapping the source of energy that the marine environment can offer us is needed to mitigate the effects of change, i.e., to cut greenhouse gases emissions generated by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) to produce energy. Our models simulations utilise the knowledge of the ocean process involved to ensure that the expansion of offshore renewable energy is achieved with minimum environmental impact.

The understanding that we can get with our ocean models of how nature-based solutions interacts with rising sea level and increasingly severe storms is very important to start using them to reduce flooding and erosion of our coastal environment. Mangrove forests and other natural habitats can be one of the most powerful natural tools we have to simultaneously slow down climate-change (by sequestering carbon) and protect coastal communities against some of its effects.

Watch... Into the Blue Podcast

Ocean Power: From Wind to Tidal Energy with Dr Michela De Dominicis

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