10 million ERC grant to help mathematicians study ocean dynamics

NASA’s SWOT mission showing ocean kinetic energy. Picture credit: NASA

NASA’s SWOT mission showing ocean kinetic energy. Picture credit: NASA

Two Imperial mathematicians have won a €10 million European Research Council grant to study how oceans are responding to climate change.

The researchers, from the Department of Mathematics, will use high-resolution satellite images and computer simulations to better understand the dynamics of the upper ocean.

The highly prestigious ERC Synergy Grant will see them partner with two leading French institutions. The grants are awarded to groups of two to four excellent ‘principal investigators’.

The ocean has absorbed 93% of the heat trapped by humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and how it responds to continued warming is uncertain.

The project could help improve scientific understanding for tracking oil spills and marine debris, and plastic accumulation in the sea.

The researchers say it will also provide decision makers with a means of quantifying the effects of local patterns of sea level rise, heat uptake, carbon storage and change of oxygen content and pH in the ocean.

The partners for the project are the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automatic Control (INRIA) and the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER) .

Around half of the 10 million funding will be allocated to Imperial.

Professor Darryl Holm said: “The upper ocean is of intense interest.

"Almost all human interactions with the ocean occur in its first few hundred meters in depth and most ocean life is also concentrated in the upper ocean.

“Warming is not the only issue. Change of the upper ocean’s salinity indicates intensifying hydrological cycles which, in turn, are linked with an increase in the severity of droughts and floods on land.”

Professor Dan Crisan added: “The ocean’s chemistry is also changing, as it absorbs our carbon dioxide emissions.

"The changes in chemistry also threaten the sustainability of life in the sea. Many of the effects of these changes could very well be catastrophic for much of life on Earth, let alone humanity, let alone society.”

Transformative research

Across Europe, the ERC awarded Synergy grants to 37 research groups this year worth in total 363 million.

The ERC says the ultimate goal of the scheme is to support close collaborative interactions that will enable transformative research, which cross-fertilises research disciplines and is capable of yielding ground-breaking scientific results.

The President of the ERC, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: “The results of this grant competition is further proof that the ERC is able to support excellent ideas and outstanding people wherever they may be located.”

European success

Professor Crisan said: “We feel privileged to have received this grant and feel energised to fulfil the objective of the proposed research in synergy with our colleagues and European counterparts.”

Professor Holm added: “As you might expect, we are still internalising the big news of the Synergy Award.

"However, we know exactly what job we have to do and we know we can rely on our Synergy team and also on our colleagues in our three institutions to get it done.”

Vice-Provost, Professor Nick Jennings, said: “These awards demonstrate the importance of European collaboration.

"Partnerships such as these place us and other universities in a strong position to engage with global challenges.

"Our researchers will be collaborating with partners in France to better understand how our oceans respond to climate change.

"We will continue to support and encourage colleagues to strengthen links with European partners and keep applying for grants, as we campaign for continued access to European research programmes after Brexit.”

College support

The academics highlighted the support of the College during the process of applying for grant funding. The College organised a mock interview with colleagues to give feedback on their proposal ahead of their ERC interview.

Professor Holm said: “We had outstanding support in our preparation for the panel interview in Brussels, which was the final make or break step in the selection process.

“Our colleagues’ efforts mattered greatly to us. We took their thoughtful advice, responses, care and encouragement with us into the interview room at Brussels.”

Professor Crisan added: “We also had great support from the Head of Mathematics Department, David van Dyk, who assisted us throughout the preparation for the grant proposal and for the September interview.

"Besides academics, many members of staff from the administrative team at Imperial helped us shape the grant.” Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or Imperial College London.

Stephen Johns
Communications and Public Affairs


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