The Danish research vessel Dana at work in the Atlantic ocean.  Photo: Line Reeh

Looking into the future

Tuesday 13 Nov 12
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by Line Reeh

Contact

Mark Payne
Senior Researcher
DTU Aqua
+45 35 88 34 22

About NACLIM:

NACLIM focuses on improving our understanding of the predictability of the climate in the North Atlantic/ European sector through oceanic observations and on the  assessment of decadal climate forecasts. The project  is led by the Institute of Oceanography of Hamburg University in Germany. NACLIM is one of three programs in a new European initiative for climate service observation and modelling (short ECOMS), funded by the European Commission to improve Europe’s ability to effectively prepare for and manage climate-related risk on our society. The program was launched on November 6th, 2012 in Barcelona at a kick-off meeting with 150 scientists from Europe and USA, among them Mark Payne from DTU Aqua in Denmark.

The North Atlantic is the key to Europe’s climate

Although we tend not to think about it that often, the North Atlantic plays a critical role in the weather and climate in Denmark and in Europe as a whole. Without the heat that the North Atlantic current pumps from the tropics to our high latitudes, our climate would be significantly colder. Changes in this circulation pattern therefore have a direct impact on the weather and climate in our region, and therefore also on all organisms that are dependent on the ocean, fish and humans alike. The signature of this variability can be seen throughout the marine ecosystem, from the plants of the ocean (phytoplankton) at the lowest levels all the way up to fish (such as blue whiting), sea birds (such as puffins and cormorants) and even pilot whales.

European and American scientists are meeting in Barcelona, Spain this month to launch a new European initiative for climate service observations and modelling. DTU Aqua is leading the work on translating the forecasts into biological outcomes.

In recent years it has become apparent that the marine climate of the North Atlantic, in addition to being variable, is also quite predictable on a 5-20 year time scale. In theory, it could therefore be possible to generate forecasts of the marine climate 20 or so years out into the future.

European and American scientists are meeting in Barcelona, Spain this month to launch a new European initiative for climate service observations and modelling to improve Europe’s ability to effectively prepare for and manage climate-related risk on our society. DTU Aqua is part of the project “North Atlantic Climate” (NACLIM) that focuses on forecasts for the North Atlantic ocean, which plays a critical role in the weather and climate that we experience in Denmark and in Europe as a whole.

 “This is a tremendously exciting prospect, because it opens up many applications, from improved preparations for extreme climate events, like heat waves or flooding, to sustainable management of marine resources, such as fish,” says research scientist Mark Payne, DTU Aqua – Institute for Aquatic Resources, Denmark, who is a work-package leader in NACLIM:

“The goals that we are trying to achieve with this project, making forecasts about biology 20 years into the future, are ambitious and extremely difficult. However, if this can be done, then the benefits to society are also tremendous. We don't expect that we will be able to solve all of these complex questions in all situations. But even if we can develop this type of forecast in a few specific cases, that will still be a major advance,” Payne continues.

Avoid unpleasant surprises

As an example, Payne points to the rise and fall of the stock of blue whiting in the North Atlantic that took everybody by surprise and left a large fishing fleet and Faroese communities without income.

In 1996 the productivity of the North Atlantic Blue whiting stock suddenly increased five times, and remained high for the following 6-8 years. The fishing fleet expanded rapidly to take advantage of this new fishing potential, and in 2004 Blue Whiting was the third largest marine fishery in the world. However, the burst of productivity disappeared as suddenly as it arrived, leaving a large fishing fleet and very few fish. The resulting severe cuts in fish quota were felt particularly in the Faroe islands, where 80% of fish landed during this period were Blue Whiting.

“Research that we have performed at DTU Aqua together with others has showed that this high-productivity was associated with dramatic changes in the North Atlantic climate. If the type of forecast that we are trying to generate in NACLIM existed in the late 1990s, it could have been possible to avoid this situation, or at least minimize the impacts that it had on these communities,” Payne says.

Fish stocks in the future

DTU and Mark Payne are leading a work package, where, together with the Faroe marine research institute, Havstovan, scientists try to translate the forecasts of the future physical conditions in the North Atlantic into biological outcomes. And Payne is not expecting an easy task.

“This is a tremendous challenge, as the biological understanding necessary to make such forecasts lags far behind the physics. Our work will focus in the first instance on identifying the "low-hanging fruit", that is the ecosystems and populations that show the tightest and most robust links to the physical environment - and then making biological forecasts if, and as, appropriate. One possible outcome is that we may find that forecasting is simply not feasible with the precision required, in other words, that the biological, or physical, understanding is simply not good enough. But that's a result in itself, and one that can certainly tell us where we need to focus our efforts in the future,” DTU Aqua-research scientist and NACLIM-leader Mark Payne concludes.

The project runs for 4 years. It was launched together with two other projects as part of a new European initiative for climate service observation and modelling (ECOMS), funded by the European Commission) on November 6th  2012 at a kick-off meeting in Barcelona with the participation of 150 researchers from Europa and USA.