The news that the Arctic ice sheets are melting at record rates and that this is likely to trigger unprecedented rise in the sea level has hasten calls for the world leaders to treat global warming as an emergency.
One of the disciplines that can assist to monitor and avert the impending climate calamity is oceanography.
And that is where Professor Isabelle Ansorge comes in. She is one of the few first women in the country to qualify as an oceanographer and also a head of department in the field traditionally dominated by males.
Ansorge attributes her decision to pursue oceanography to her father who took her out of school at the age of 14 on a six month voyage around Africa.
Since the trip she has developed passion for the ocean and to the whole maritime ecosystem. “That changed my life, and I sit where I am because of that one experience,” she said about the adventure.
Ansorge, who is currently based at the University of Cape Town, recently presented her inaugural lecture titled: “Teaching the many (50) shades of blue – while the world is changing its shade”.She used the platform not only to share the latest on her research but also to highlight the significance of her discipline at the time when the world is facing the worsening climate changes.
Ansorge has created “observational oceanography” as her speciality and niche. It focuses on creating awareness of the ocean’s physical, biogeochemical and ecological response to climate change.
The other critical area she is involved in is the SEAmester programme aboard the ice-breaker and research vessel the SA Agulhas II. This is the country’s flagship marine and polar research vessel.
She said the university is using the platform to offer all earth system post-graduates across South Africa an opportunity to gain access to this research area.
She also explained that ocean current systems are very important in regulating the climate. “It’s important to understand the importance of the oceans and the global conveyor belt that links all ocean basins. “We have a strong connectivity between the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. The surface flow brings warm water around the planet. And the colder flow sits deep in the interior of the world’s ocean. So, you have this overturning as water sinks down into the deep oceans and then pops up again somewhere in the Southern Ocean.”
Ansorge said the country’s warm Agulhas current flowing south-west leaks salt into the colder Atlantic Ocean. She said this is part of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a major global current system that connects both north and south Atlantic oceans.
Anosrge said in 2013 South Africa deployed a long-term monitoring array: an observation network of instruments that form the South Atlantic Meridional Ocean Circulation (SAMOC-SA) system.
She said universities and government should train new generation of post-graduates to continue and engage in further research into monitoring the oceans.
According to Ansorge, to date 186 students have experienced SEAmester; 68% of those are furthering their studies, others have moved into the work field, travel and business. She also said they get 200 applications annually for 45 berths and they have 30 academics and other selected researchers.
More importantly, they prioritise women and black students, said Ansorge, adding that the participant split is: 46% black, 36% white, 5% Indian and 13% coloured.
SEAmester programme is run in parallel with the South African Environmental Observation Networkʼs Egagasini Node Agulhas System Climate Array (ASCA).
“There is a very strong need to get students onto the ship, and the funder – the Department of Science and Innovation – has recognised that we have to attract young researchers into the region, but we have also got to retain them. We’ve got to excite them, enthuse them and give them a tangible experience where they can go to sea and feel that they have learned something that they would never learn in the classroom – and that they are making a meaningful contribution to science.”