To Follow the Water: Exploring the Ocean to Understand Climate

Come aboard the research vessel Knorr for a glimpse into the unseen world of ocean science. Join Dr. Lisa Beal’s international team as they measure the Indian Ocean’s Agulhas Current, one of the fastest on Earth, and witness the methods and meet the people who seek to understand the ways of the ocean and its intricate relation to global climate.

Dr. Lisa Beal’s international team is studying the Indian Ocean’s Agulhas Current, one of the fastest on Earth. Witness the methods and meet the people who seek to understand the ways of the ocean and its intricate relation to global climate.

The Agulhas Current is the Indian Ocean’s version of the Gulf Stream. Originating in the tropics, both sprint along the west sides of their respective ocean basins transporting warm, salty water away from the tropics toward the poles.

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Video by Valery Lyman

RSMAS Science Highlights of 2011

RSMAS was a busy place for cutting-edge science this year. Here’s a look back at the top research studies that made headlines in 2011 and the latest science and education from Virginia Key and beyond.

Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s study of one hammerhead shark’s lone journey to New Jersey made headlines in early 2011 as did Dr. Lisa Beal’s ongoing research on the Agulhas Current and its link to global change change.

Coral reefs made news this year, including from a newly published study by Dr. Diego Lirman that showed Florida’s reefs cannot endure a ‘cold snap’ and from a study of Papua New Guinea reefs by Dr. Chris Langdon that suggests ocean acidification may reduce reef diversity.


Before the year closed, Dr. Shimon Wdowinski presented a new study at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco that showed tropical cyclones could trigger earthquakes.

RSMAS scientists and student were part of many new and ongoing research expeditions. Researchers and students from RSMAS joined an international team on a six-month field campaign in the Indian Ocean, known as DYNAMO. They are studying how tropical weather brews over the region and moves eastward along the equator, with reverberating effects around the entire globe. Follow the ongoing work from the scientists.

Meanwhile, it was a busy end of the year for Lisa Beal and her research team who embarked on a month-long expedition to the waters off of South Africa to understand how one of the world’s strongest ocean currents – the Agulhas Current – is both affected by climate change and also has an effect on climate change.

On the academic side of RSMAS life, the Masters of Professional Science program was in full swing this year and the newly acquired Broad Key Research Station welcomed its first cohort of students to study the coral reef ecosystems of the Florida Keys. Finally, joint degrees in law and marine affairs was launched at UM to provide students with a unique educational opportunity to tackle environmental issues.

As 2011 comes to a close, RSMAS faculty, researchers and students are looking forward to another busy and exciting year in 2012 filled with new scientific discoveries and educational opportunities.

Tell us about your research plans for 2012.

Update: Agulhas Expedition Winding Down

For the past few weeks, the research vessel Melville has been home to a team of scientists studying one of the worlds most dangerous and fascinating currents, the Agulhas Current. UM Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science Associate Professor Lisa Beal is leading The Agulhas Time-Series Experiment research in the southern Indian Ocean, along with scientists from around the globe, including from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Cape Town, to study the Agulhas Current’s role in global climate change. Check out some amazing videos, pictures and journal entires from their wild adventure in the Indian Ocean.

-Andrew DeChellis
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Adventures in the Indian Ocean

Seamen have relied on the winds of the Indian Ocean since the days of Sinbad the Sailor. More recently, scientists have come to appreciate the impact these Indian Ocean winds have on weather occurring in the western hemisphere – on the opposite side of the globe from the Indian Ocean – through a weather phenomenon known as the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO).

Aerial view of Malé in the Maldives. The two dark lines are propeller wings.

Named after two scientists, this is a 40-60 day weather cycle that consists of a lot of rain over a large area, lasting for about three weeks, followed by a three-week period of calmer weather before transitioning back into heavier rains again.

This weather pattern occurs mostly at the equator, where the effects of Earth’s rotation do not influence weather systems. This happens because near the equator there is no jet stream, and therefore cold and warm weather fronts, like those experienced in the northern part of the US or in other mid-latitude regions, do not exist. This also makes weather at the equator difficult to model, because it is so different from what we experience in the mid-latitudes. Nevertheless, weather at the equator can affect weather in the US, for example by supplying moisture.

Addu Atoll lagoon at sunset

It’s difficult to model this type of weather pattern well, particularly how it begins. The Indian Ocean is known as a ‘genesis’ or ‘birth’ region for the MJO. A large field experiment, called DYNAMO (Dynamics of the MJO), is now underway in the Indian Ocean to study how large regions of rain can develop at the equator, and to use that information to improve weather models. Hundreds of scientists are stationed on islands and research ships. They are equipped with radars and other instruments all across the ocean in an effort to study how a peaceful, warm ocean and calm skies can turn into one of the wettest places on Earth, seemingly overnight. The field experiment, which began on October 1 is being led by Professor Chidong Zhang and includes many scientists and students from RSMAS.

Group photo of RSMAS faculty at the DYNAMO opening ceremony on Gan Island. From left to right: Chidong Zhang, Paquita Zuidema, David Zermeno, Brian Mapes

Photos taken in October, at the start of the research experiment, show the beautiful drier tropical days as the atmosphere is building up moisture. These photos were taken on Addu Atoll in the Maldives, which is located within a degree of the equator. This beautiful atoll encircles a lagoon, and is many miles long but only several blocks wide even at its widest.

DYNAMO will continue well into 2012. You can learn more about the MJO from the Australian weather bureau and follow the weekly weather discussions.

–UM Associate Professor, Dr. Paquita Zuidema