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Physical Oceanography – a chat with the Guest Editors of our upcoming collection

PLOS ONE has an open Call for Papers on Physical Oceanography, for which selected publications will be showcased in a special collection. This call for papers aims to highlight the breadth of physical oceanography research across a wide range of regions and disciplines. We welcome submissions including those that feature multidisciplinary research and encourage studies that utilize Open Science resources, such as data and code repositories.

The upcoming collection will be curated by three accomplished researchers in the field, all of whom additionally serve as Editorial Board Members for PLOS: Dr. Maite deCastro (University of Vigo, Spain); Dr. Isabel Iglesias Fernandez (CIIMAR, University of Porto, Portugal); and Dr. Vanesa Magar (CICESE, Mexico).


Here, we chat with Profs. deCastro and Iglesias to learn more about their research, their thoughts on the future of Physical Oceanography and how advances in this field can provide a better understanding of future environmental change.

Tell us about your research.

MdC: My research is clearly aligned with Climate and Renewable Energy, especially on the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems and on wind and wave renewable energy resources. It is also aligned with Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, and Environment, especially in the relationship between climate and species of commercial value.

II: I’d like to say that my research interests are multidisciplinary but always with something in common, and this nexus is physical oceanography. My main research topic is related with estuarine hydrodynamics. I work with numerical models, which are versatile tools that help to unravel the hydrodynamic patterns in these complex areas. Once these models are implemented for a specific region, they can be used for multiple purposes such as representation of sediment, contaminant and marine litter transportation patterns, forecasting the effects of extreme events, anthropic activities or climate change conditions, or even calculating the potential of hydrokinetic energy production. These are some works that I have performed in collaboration with several colleagues and in the scope of national and international research projects.

At the same time, I am also interested in coastal and oceanic dynamics. I have conducted research that related long-term variability sea level anomalies in the North Atlantic with teleconnection patterns; I supervised a study related with wave forecast, and I am collaborating in the generation of a tool to forecast the dispersion patterns of sediment plumes generated by potential deep-sea mining activities in the Atlantic region.

What new finding or growing research topic in the field of physical oceanography are you currently excited about?

MdC: I am very enthusiastic about the research I have carried out in recent years, as it has allowed us to delve into the effect of climate change on historical trends in coastal upwelling, sea surface temperature, and mixed layer, among others, and to analyze its biological impact on species such as sea bream, tuna, and algae. We have also analyzed the future projections of these variables under different climate change scenarios and their possible impacts on bivalves such as mussels, different clam species, and cockles in the Galician estuaries. This approach will allow us to know both the evolution of these ecosystems in the future and to determine what measures will be necessary to mitigate the effect of climate change in order to make these ecosystems more resilient.

II: Ecoengineering. In recent decades, the focus of coastal and estuarine engineering research has shifted from technical approaches towards the integrated combination of technical, ecological, and nature-orientated solutions to reduce environmental impacts. Practical ecoengineering solutions for estuarine regions should be based on numerical modelling tools, which can provide the necessary knowledge of the relevant hydrodynamic processes and an understanding of natural processes, hydrodynamic–ecological interactions, and the impacts of structures on the environment.

At the same time, deep-sea mining is a hot topic. In recent years, deep-sea mining has become an attractive and economically viable solution to provide metals and minerals for the worldwide industry. Although promising, a large proportion of these resources are located in the vicinity of still poorly studied and understood sensitive ecosystems. The generated sediment laden plumes and the trace elements released to the water column that are associated with the extraction procedures can change the biogeochemical equilibrium of the surrounding area. This can alter deep-sea life-support services, damaging the local ecosystems with potential impacts that can persist through decades. Reliable ocean numerical models reproducing the dynamics of deep-sea areas can help to mapping the potential scale of deep-sea mining effects, being one of the key technological advances needed to implement risk assessment and better anticipate possible impacts.

For each of you, your research features an exploration of the effects of wind and the role it plays in ocean and climatological processes. Can you discuss the close link between atmospheric and ocean sciences?

MdC: A part of my most recent research is closely related to the development of renewable energies as an alternative to burning fossil fuels in the fight against climate change. Specifically, my research analyzes future offshore wind and wave energy resources under different climate change scenarios. This research field is an example of the close link between atmospheric and ocean sciences.

II: The atmosphere and the ocean are two different parts of the same system, jointly with the lithosphere, the biosphere and the cryosphere. The atmosphere and the ocean are in contact, constantly exchange mass, momentum and energy between them. The wind is one clear example of this link between the atmosphere and the ocean, generating waves and currents and affecting the sea surface temperature. But there are many others: evaporation, precipitation, heating, cooling, … And these links are the bases of short- (meteorological) and long-term (climatological) processes as winter rainfall, hurricanes or ENSO events, among others.

Many physical oceanographers spend a lot of their time working at a computer – do you ever get to do field work or research cruises?

MdC: At the beginning of my research career, I carried out several oceanographic campaigns in the Galician estuaries to take field measurements that would allow us to characterize their hydrodynamics. These campaigns were carried out jointly with chemists and biologists who analyzed other aspects of the estuaries.

II: Yes! I was in field work in the middle of January and I am expecting to have more campaigns in March and June of this year. Most of the time I am in front of a computer, but numerical models need real data to be calibrated and validated. For that we must go out into the field and measure the physical variables that we need. And although sometimes it hard to start the campaigns at six in the morning, the truth is that it is a breath of fresh air.

There is an undeniable link between anthropogenic pressures on the global environment and changes that we are seeing in marine systems. Can you discuss how you have observed this in your own research and the implications your findings have for the future?

MdC: The enormous increase in global energy consumption, together with the need to avoid the burning of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, has led the scientific community to make the development of alternative energy sources, such as renewable energies, a priority objective. This has motivated a part of my most recent research where the offshore wind and wave energy resource is analyzed both now and in the near future under different climate change scenarios that take into account different concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions, socioeconomic measures, and land uses. This renewable energy resource analysis is complemented, in some locations, with an economic viability analysis.

II: It is clear that something is happening. Now the effects of the anthropogenic pressures on the global environment are visible. In the Iberian Peninsula we are facing one of the most severe droughts in the last decades. But other recent signals are the floods in western Germany in July 2021, the record-breaking high temperature in Moscow during July 2021, the snowfall in Madrid in January 2021, heavy cyclones and dust storms, or a heavier-than-normal wildfire season. So it is not just something that scientists are saying. It is something that the non-scientific population can see now. And, as the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned, the world is reaching a “point of no return”.

The complex estuarine systems can be considered as one of the most sensitive areas to environmental stressors due to the strong coupling between physics, sediments, chemistry and biology. In this sense, the effects of the climate change conditions in estuaries can be diverse based on changes in river flow, in extreme events frequency, and in water temperature and water level, affecting the circulation, salinity distribution, suspended sediments, dissolved oxygen and biogeochemistry. I used numerical models to forecast the effect of sea level rise inside the estuarine regions. It was demonstrated that the sea level rise can cause more severe floods in some estuaries. However, what should be taken into account is that the sea level rise inside the estuaries will produce a change in the circulation patterns and in the water masses configuration. This will undoubtedly affect the ecological and socio-economic aspects, due to the great value of the estuarine ecosystem services.

Historically, women have had to push for equality, respect and recognition in the field of physics. Do you think that the field is changing to become more inclusive, and what do you think research advisors, university leaders and funding agencies can do to better support women in physical oceanography?

MdC: Personally, I have always felt treated exactly the same as any other colleague throughout my scientific career, both in my closest circle and at an institutional level. I think I’ve had the same opportunities and help. I think that in this sense the field of physics, or at least this is my personal perception, is a privileged field. Despite this, I consider that there are still few women in this field compared to men and any activity aimed at making women feel more attracted to the field of physics is necessary.

II: I must say that I never need to fight more than a “man” to achieve the same respect and recognition for my work neither in my research group, nor in my research institute, country or even internationally. I had the same opportunities as anyone being men or woman. And curiously, we are more women in my research group, which develop research topics that were traditionally associated with “man”, like physics, engineering, mathematics, algorithms, numerical modelling, computational sciences, etc. I know that I am lucky, because other women before me pushed hard for equality and recognition and there are other women in different areas that still need to push to gain respect and visibility.

The term Open Science has been used to highlight the fact that transparency in scientific research goes beyond just Open Access publications. In the field of physical oceanography how do you think that making code and data publicly available can benefit researchers and policy makers?

MdC: In general terms, for the sake of transparency and the progress of the investigation, I consider it important to be able to have all the necessary material (code, data) so that any researcher can reproduce the results of another.  We will move faster and save resources if the data generated by other entities are public and if we all have access to each other’s progress instead of repeating what other researchers have already done. All this, of course, is within a framework of respect for the work of each one.

II: In my opinion, the science needs to be open. We are paying science with public funds, and it is not ethical to keep our research only for us on a long term basis. Of course, there must be some nuances regarding data for articles or patents. But I think that, at the end, the generated research should be public available. And it is not only the Open Access publications, which guarantee the transparency and the replicability of the research methodology, but also the numerical codes, the tools and the data generated in the scope of public funded research projects. Only in this way will we manage to advance faster in science, sharing our knowledge with other researchers and supporting the policy makers with proper tools to ensure the safety of populations and the sustainability of ecosystems and services.

About the Guest Editors

Isabel Iglesias holds a PhD in Climatic Sciences: Meteorology, Physical Oceanography and Climatic Change by the University of Vigo (2010). Since 2011 Isabel is working as an Assistant Researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR) of the University of Porto, Portugal. Her main research topics are related with physical oceanography, atmosphere-ocean interaction, transport (sediments and marine litter), extreme events and climate change. Particularly she has experience in analysing the hydrodynamic behaviour of the water masses and in applying numerical models at oceanic, including surface and deep-sea areas, coastal and estuarine regions. Other areas of expertise include the performance and analysis of physical data obtained in sampling campaigns and the evaluation and analysis of remote sensing data for numerical modelling calibration/validation.

Maite deCastro is a Professor of Applied Physics at the University of Vigo. She obtained her PhD in Physics from the University of Santiago de Compostela (1998). The main focus of her research deals with (a) the study of hydrodynamics, waves and transport phenomena in shallow waters by means of in situ field data and numerical simulations; (b) the analysis of the variability (inter-annual and inter-decadal) of coastal and oceanic sea surface temperature (SST) using numerical and satellite data; (c) the analysis of the water masses around the Iberian Peninsula using salinity and temperature data obtained from the SODA base or ARGO buoys; (d) The effects of meteorological forcing on the ocean using satellite data or reanalysis such as: wind data, Ekman transport, sea level pressure (SLP), SST, teleconnection indices (NAO, EA, EA-WR, SCA, POL…); (e) The analysis of the plume development of rivers using radiance data from the Oceancolor MODIS base. (f) the influence of climate change on oceanographic variables, both present and in the future and, (h) the analysis of present and future wind, solar and wave resources for renewable energy production.

Vanesa Magar holds a BSc in Physics from UNAM, and a master’s in advanced studies in Mathematics and a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, UK. She has been working in coastal and physical oceanography since 2002, and in renewable energy research and development since 2008. She joined the Physical Oceanography Department of CICESE as a senior researcher in 2014, where she co-leads the GEMlab (Geophysical and Environmental Modelling Lab) with Dr Markus Gross. Her research interests include wind energy, marine renewable energy, coastal hydrodynamics, and sustainable development issues in relation to renewable energy project development. She is member of the Energy Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), UK, and a fellow and chartered mathematician from the IMA. She served in the Mexican Geophysical Union director’s board (as Secretary General, Vice President, and President) from 2016 to 2021. Currently, she is part of the Executive Committee of the National Strategic Programme (PRONACE) in Energy and Climate Change of CONACYT (2018- ).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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