A pinch of salt: UEA's glider research team


    An ocean glider

    At the UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, held in November this year, UEA climate change experts played a crucial role in developing and sharing new climate-related research in support of the negotiations.

    Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing our planet, already wreaking havoc across the world – from extreme weather events to rising sea levels. COP27 attendees agreed: unless we make urgent changes collectively, the consequences could be devastating for us all.  

    UEA has been at the forefront of climate research since the 1970s. We talk to renowned expert in ocean exploration, Professor Karen Heywood, about her pioneering work with ocean gliders in the Antarctic to gain crucial insights into rising sea levels worldwide.

    UEA’s Polar Initiative

    A key area of research is our Polar Initiative, where environmental scientists are seeking to understand more about the effects of climate change on glaciers, ice shelves and the surrounding seas.   

    The interaction between ocean and atmosphere is a key question in our researchers’ quest to understand how – and when – the effects of global warming might reach a tipping point. Much of this activity is focused on the high latitude polar regions, where climate change is manifesting itself most dramatically.

    A deep dive into the Antarctic oceans

    But the valuable data needed to broaden our understanding is hard – and dangerous – to come by due to the treacherous conditions common to the Arctic and Antarctic seas. Enter the ocean gliders – small, gutsy and undaunted by the dangers posed by calving icebergs, stormy weather and icy seas.

    UEA’s ocean glider research team are pioneering these state- of-the-art autonomous vehicles to capture the data needed to understand glacier loss in the Antarctic.

    Led by expert in the physical exploration of the oceans, Prof Karen Heywood, the team’s work involves investigating physical processes in our oceans that underpin climate, such as salinity, temperature and turbulent mixing to reveal new insights into the interactions between the ocean and floating ice shelves.

    AI controlled gliders

    Sleek, compact and autonomous, the gliders can be programmed to travel to specific locations but use the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to plot and navigate their own routes independently.

    Most crucially, their compact yet robust frames mean the gliders can access locations that are unreachable to their human handlers – including the floating ice shelf, situated between the land and the open ocean. Rich in data about ocean conditions and how these might be changing, the ice shelf environment is relatively unknown due to the dangers of calving icebergs, rough seas and harsh, unforgiving conditions.

    With their diminutive size and round noses, it’s easy to see why Prof Heywood describes them as “like little dolphins”. And each one has a whale-inspired name – currently we have Fin, Bella, Humpback, Marlin, Melonhead, Mahi Mahi and Bottlenose.

    Prof Heywood goes on to explain “throughout their missions, the gliders collect and transmit crucial data back to the research team. Ensuring this data is shared freely allows global climate modelling to give more accurate projections on the timeframes around sea level rise, helping countries at risk of changes in sea levels to understand the necessary action to mitigate future impact.

    Exploring the Antarctic

    Prof Heywood’s team specialises in monitoring areas where glaciers become floating ice shelves. The warmer the temperature of the ocean flow underneath the ice, the more rapidly glacial ice flows into the sea. The introduction of this additional fresh water is affecting salinity levels, wildlife and habitats and – of course – contributing to rising sea levels on a global scale.

    Almost half the world’s population lives within 100km of the sea. Prof Heywood’s area of research is critical to increasing our understanding of when sea levels might rise to dangerous levels and allowing countries to make plans while they still can.

    How you can help

    Philanthropy at UEA has already allowed us to make monumental scientific strides in research – now, with the continued help of our supporters, UEA’s climate research will shape the future of our planet at a time when decisive action is critical to everyone’s future.

    Funding is needed to send research teams out to the polar regions and support them to analyse valuable data upon their return to the lab. Each each ocean glider represents between £150-200K. 

    If you would like to know more about how you can support this crucial research, contact the Development Office

    Find out more about how we are creating a practical action plan to tackle our climate emergency – and how you can help – here: Climate Change Research