Ocean modeling directs better policies, preparation
“The goal here is to predict what will happen in the future so we can be ready for what comes.”
Assistant professor; earth, environmental and planetary sciences
Baylor Fox-Kemper arrived at Brown University three years ago with his research focus on ocean turbulence, or, more simply, how things get mixed and transported in the upper part of the ocean.
Winds, waves and currents — turbulence as small as the wake behind a buoy to a massive eddy the size of 10 Rhode Islands — Fox-Kemper seeks to understand how they work and the impact of climate change on these natural systems.
Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR offered the chance to jump aboard and collaborate with colleagues at partner institutions and learn from their local expertise. Today, Fox-Kemper is the lead principal investigator on a Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC) grant that brings together scientists at Brown, University of Rhode Island and Rogers Williams University, and relies on the research capacity of RI EPSCoR-supported facilities throughout the state.
Fox-Kemper brings his high resolution ocean modeling to the project; URI researchers Lewis Rothstein, Christopher Kincaid, and David Ullman add their expertise on modeling the region. RWU’s Dale Leavitt and David Taylor contribute their fisheries expertise.
“It spans the whole spectrum, from the fundamental physics through the local physical experience, and up to the biological expertise,” Fox-Kemper says. “The goal here is to predict what will happen in the future so we can be ready for what comes.”
Today, the project is at the point where the researchers have run test simulations and they are looking at the output to ensure the models make sense. Use of the very finest grids, in particular, says Fox-Kemper, is an ambitious implementation in that it nests inside the coarser resolution models and seeks to directly capture all of the important sizes of turbulence, rather than approximating them.
“We only have one Bay to play with. Once we make a choice, we don’t know what might have happened in its absence.”
Ultimately, understanding how factors such as climate change impact movement and forecasting the effect on coastal systems will better direct policy decisions and make the most efficient use of funds.
Fox-Kemper concedes the problem is complicated; the computer model will not give an if-then scenario. Rather, the process will help organize the many disparate factors in a consistent way to allow scientists to keep track of the water as it ebbs and flows, and the critical factors of temperature, nutrients, oxygen, and salinity, and how they interact with each other.
There are many potential applications, he says, but the value hinges on the accuracy of models the team can trust: “The problem is, the models aren’t any smarter than we are. We set up models and then recreate what happened in the past at times when we happened to have instruments in the water. We don’t need new information — we make the most of what we already know.”
First, Fox-Kemper explains, the scientists focus on the fundamentals, getting the tides right, the daily warming and cooling of water temperature, data measured and observations collected. These factors predated the models and weren’t collected for the computational purpose, but their availability lets the team take advantage of what already exists in the archives.
From there, the computations can take into account additional pieces of information, including the biological measurements, and answer various questions such as where is the best place to rebuild an oyster reef so the oyster spat, or baby oysters, can feed on the plankton, a food source carried by the whims of ocean currents.
The project would not be possible without Brown’s Center for Computation & Visualization, an EPSCoR-supported facility, which provides the computer and computational capabilities to hold and harness the reams of data collected. The calculations the scientists conduct with their models are huge and demand an array of different computers working together.
“We often think of policy measures as precautionary, that they don’t do any harm or the ocean is so big that they don’t impact it. But, the real world is somewhere in the middle.”
Fox-Kemper notes that the EPSCoR community also provides room for social scientists to join the equation and explore issues like the public perception of science and how that may influence the decision-making process.
The importance of the team’s work is pivotal to Rhode Island’s future, according to Fox-Kemper: “We only have one Bay to play with. Once we make a choice, we don’t know what might have happened in its absence. The model allows us to make different choices, to estimate what will happen, to test. You can’t do that in the real world.”
What the EPSCoR grant has allowed, he adds, is for the Rhode Island scientists to build a fully functioning model that will have application in other regions (Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Gulf of Mexico), attract additional funding, and give rise to the pursuit of bigger and more complex questions.
The team’s software — Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) — can be used in different locations, even though the wealth of observations available may be more limited than what researchers here have for Narragansett Bay.
“This will give policy makers a little more information about what they might expect from their policy choices,” Fox-Kemper says. “We often think of policy measures as precautionary, that they don’t do any harm or the ocean is so big that they don’t impact it. But, the real world is somewhere in the middle. The models can help inform those choices and balance cost vs. effectiveness.”
Story and photo by Amy Dunkle | RI NSF EPSCoR