The Ocean Modeler: Thomas Frölicher's groundbreaking research

The super models of the great seas of a Swiss scientist in Bern have allowed us to understand the effects of global warming

Oceans: Thomas Frölicher's research and models of the great seas
Thomas Frölicher, the ocean modeller: thanks to his mathematical models we know the impact of global warming on the great seas (Photo: SNSF)

On the door of the office of Thomas Frölicher there is a poster of "Globes and Energy", a children's book in which the blue parrot, the most famous cartoon character in German-speaking Switzerland, tries to discover the impact of the electric toothbrush ontechnology.

"The authors asked me to confirm some facts, and of course I said yes!”, comments the scholar, professor of Climate and Environmental Physics atUniversity of Bern and among the main authors of the United Nations reports ontechnology.

To his research activity we owe much of what we know about the impact of human activities on the lives of great seas: his job, in fact, is to build models of the physical and geobiochemical evolution of the oceans.

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Mathematical super models of the oceans
Thomas Frölicher's research has revealed the close connection between declining amounts of oxygen in the ocean and global warming (Photo: Envato)

The Swiss Thomas Frölicher and the "reproductions" of the ocean

Thomas Frölicher he has loved physics and nature since childhood, divided between trips to the mountains and experiments in the basement with his father, an electronic physicist. You studied Environmental Sciences at ETH Zurich (ETH)"That's where I saw a great opportunity to combine my interest in mathematics and my love of nature", explains.

After specializing in Atmospheric Physics, atUniversity of Bern, he has also extended his horizons to the oceans, focusing in particular on oxygen content in marine waters and its fluctuations.

"That kind of research was just beginning, and there were a lot of imponderables”, he explains, “NWe didn't know exactly which fluctuations were natural and which were due to human influence".

Today we know that the oceans, from the 1s to today, have lost 3 to XNUMX percent of the oxygen they had available, and we know with some precision what percentage Excess CO2 absorbed by the oceans is directly due to human emissions.

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Climate models and understanding global warming

Today Thomas Frölicher's work is carried out mainly thanks to supercomputer of the Swiss Center for Scientific Computing (CSCS) of Lugano, which carry out the calculations required by the models developed by the professor's team.

These powerful machines can take up to two or three months to perform calculations on ocean models. These are then transferred to a normal PC for evaluation, an operation that can take another few months.

I global models and climate simulations developed since the end of the XNUMXs have allowed us to understand the mechanisms responsible for climate change, and thanks to Dr. Frölicher's new models we have more and more information on the role of oceanic seas and onimpact of global warming on marine ecosystems.

Between 2010 and 2013, he worked at thePrinceton University, the one in which the first models of the atmosphere and the ocean were born: Syukuro Manabe, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2021 “for physical modeling of the Earth's climate”, the one to whom we owe the first reliable predictions on global warming, in those years he taught right there.

"We often had lunch together”, recalls Thomas Frölicher, “he was very interested in the research of his younger colleagues".

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The study of the oceans cannot ignore the data collected by satellites such as Sentinel-3, developed by ESA for Earth observation (Photo: ESA/ATG medialab)

Discoveries about climate change and water surfaces

During his years at Princeton, the Swiss professor dedicated himself to developing models of changes in temperature and climate Carbon cycle in the Southern Ocean. The group that carried out this research was among the first ever to release the famous Drifters into the water, the large buoys that record tons of data on temperature, salinity, pressure, oxygen content and acidity of the water of the sea.

The long search for Thomas Frölicher in Antarctica provided us with shocking data: the 75 percent of excess heat absorbed by the oceans resulting from greenhouse gases, and the 15 percent of CO2 emissions produced by man, are absorbed byAntarctic Ocean.

In 2018, his supermodels of the ocean have allowed us to establish a relationship between the frequency of heat waves in the oceans and the increase in global temperature.

In the studio, published in “Nature”, calculated that the frequency of heat waves has doubled from 1982 to today, and it has been demonstrated that their probability is proportional to therising temperatures.

The study in question used data from satellite observations and a compendium of Earth simulation models, and made it possible to predict the frequency of heat waves “will increase by a factor of 16 with a climate 1,5°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and by a factor of 23 if global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius.”

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Changes and extreme events across the oceans can jeopardize the livelihoods of populations that rely on fishing for their food security (Photo: Envato)

The effects of global warming on ocean ecosystems

Il monitoring oxygen levels in the ocean also made it possible to investigate the repercussions of heating and ocean acidification marine ecosystems. The fact that oxygen contents have dropped so much in the waters covering 70 percent of the Earth's surface, from the XNUMXs to today, can have tremendous repercussions for ecosystems and also for theeconomy of fishing.

In fact, fish naturally avoid them oxygen-deficient waters, and tend to move elsewhere, with the result that in some areas the fishermen's nets are now empty.

This, remember Thomas Frölicher in 2017 research, “It is very worrying, because the ocean provides food security and livelihoods for approximately 15 percent of the world's population".

Le relationships between physical variables e geobiochemical derived from ocean supermodels have made it possible to evaluate the trend of extreme weather events, while a new high-resolution Earth System Model has made it possible to understand the triggering factors.

"We still know little”, we read in the research, “of extreme events in the oceans, especially those associated with warming, acidification, deoxygenation and nutrient stress".

The key, this time too, comes from models of great seas high resolution. Integrated with the data available on the indices of vulnerability of marine species, these models allowed Thomas Frölicher's team to quantify the regional risk levels for marine organisms in case of extreme events.

Know predict what will happen to the oceans it is the only way to avoid dramatic and irreversible effects of a process that is putting the resilience of ecosystems to the test.

To do this, they are necessary huge mathematical models like those developed by Thoams Frölicher, which allow us to identify relationships and predict the evolution of phenomena that could change the Earth as we know it, also favored by supercomputer of new generation.

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Thomas Frölicher's groundbreaking research in Bern on oceans and climate change

Oceans and global warming: Thomas Frölicher's research
The Indian Ocean photographed from the International Space Station in July 2021 (Photo: NASA/Mark Garcia)