UVic Torch -- Spring 2003
Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Photography by ROB KRUYT
Mix 'N' Math
By MIKE MCNENEY

Understanding the equations of ocean fluid dynamics


OCEAN SCIENTIST MARY-LOUISE TIMMERMANS, BSC ’94
was 15 when her parents took her on a three-year voyage around the world. For someone who had grown up in Whitehorse the first taste of the open ocean—as the family’s 43-foot sailboat exited Juan de Fuca Strait—is something she still talks about with keen fascination.

“I remember being really amazed. The first thing that struck me was looking around and not seeing anything, just vastness. It’s a weird, incredible feeling.”

The waves, waterspouts, moon-bows—even the ocean doldrums—inspired an intense curiosity about the sea. It’s a state of mind that Timmermans finds herself immersed in every day at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, where she holds a postdoctoral scholarship. A graduate of the physics co-op program, she completed her PhD at Cambridge University.

She studies ocean fluid dynamics. She loves that she gets to “think about how things work,” the way data—on a scale ranging from the minute to the vast—drawn from ocean circulation processes reveal clues about potential shifts in the Earth’s climate. Her theoretical work has implications for general ocean circulation theory and computer-driven climate models.

“The oceans play a huge, essential part in the climate system. If we want to think about what the future holds for us, we have to understand what’s happening with oceans.”

It’s an immense mathematical challenge to find the equations and understand the physics that explain how the ocean behaves. The Earth’s rotation (and its influence on major currents like the Atlantic Gulf Stream), surface winds, internal waves, and ocean floor topography are all factors. Then there are the complicating effects of salt and heat.

Last summer, Timmermans joined UVic ocean physics specialist Chris Garrett and Eddy Carmack of the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences on a research voyage to the Arctic Ocean. There, the Canada Basin contains the Arctic’s oldest body of water, believed to have been isolated from the surface for about 500 years.

In a deployment that took 13 hours, the team installed a 52-piece vertical array of temperature sensors to a depth of more than 3,000 metres. When the instruments are recovered next year, the long-term data will hopefully reveal more about how long the Canada Basin has been isolated, how it got to those depths, and where it came from. “Changes in the global climate,” says Timmermans, “which affect the shallower parts of the ocean may lead to changes in the deep Arctic Ocean, which could then have a strong feedback effect involving shallower waters. And we already know the Arctic Ocean plays a vital part in the global ocean and climate system.”



System Problems| Mix 'N' Math | Interactive Sea | Q & A with Carbon Buster





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