Stress & the sea

For my last research interfaces task (yes it is finally over now) I had to write a short ‘article’ style thing on my Masters project. I thought I’d share it with you here and then tell you about some of the realities of it that I didn’t write about…

Listening to the sea  

It’s not often you find a whole new scientific discipline in the rubbish. That’s what W. Steven Holbrook effectively did back in 2003 when he noticed that there was meaning in the noise people searching for oil were throwing away.

For decades people had been taking ships out into the centre of the ocean and firing high pressure bubbles of air into the water to create sound waves searching for oil beneath the ocean floor. When the waves reach areas with a sharp change in material, for example from rock to oil, part of them gets reflected back. These reflections are picked up at the sea surface by detectors sensitive to changes in pressure, called hydrophones.

Holbrook’s breakthrough was to realise that although we were just listening to the ocean floor, we were also talking to the sea, and it was talking back.

The reflections in the seabed are large and dominate the results seen at the surface. The rest of the data was discarded as noise, but in the sea itself there are a myriad of density changes as the temperature and salinity vary with depth. These changes in density cause reflections just like the more prominent ones in the sea floor.

Measuring the temperature and salinity of the sea is important to climate scientists, as it reveals how different bodies of water mix, and how heat is transferred between them. Prior to this, instruments had to be lowered into the sea to measure properties directly at different discrete depths and positions, and the gaps in the data then filled in mathematically. This new method allowed two or even three-dimensional sections of the ocean to be examined in huge detail. Because it is a relatively new discipline what features it can and can’t see are still in question.

For my project I am looking at an area just north of Scotland called the Faroe-Shetland channel. It is a deep channel in an otherwise high ocean ridge, meaning that it is one of the only places that cold, dense water from the Arctic can mix with the warm salty water of the North Atlantic, bringing us our relativity balmy climate. Once the warm water comes across the ridge it cools and sinks drawing in more warm water. This giant circulation, seen by some observations to be slowing down in 2005, is of global importance for understanding future climate predictions.

I am using data from an international ocean model that predicts the temperature and salinity of the oceans all over the world using physical principles and real data. I am creating ‘synthetic seismograms’—pictures of what you would see if you listened to the ocean using sound waves in this area. These pictures can investigate what frequencies or types of waves are best for picking up certain features of the ocean and are used by scientists in these surveys to help make sure they understand what they are seeing.

Whether it is using gravitational waves to see deep into spacetime or firing high pressure bubbles into the ocean, Physics gives us new senses to listen to and interact with things previously out of reach to us. The climate is a vast and complex system that physically connects us all and needs huge amounts of data and modelling to even begin to understand and predict. To be able to find out more about this and do some research of my own on it is a privilege.


So that’s the official line on my project: meaningful and fun!

However I’m not finding it easy work—I am not the best at programming, so though I’ve learnt a lot it takes me a long time to work out how best to do things and I have little intuition about how to make the most efficient code. It doesn’t help that my laptop is also four years old now and really struggling with not crashing when doing anything more intensive than creating a ten item vector.

The main problem I am having though is that I find it very difficult to ask my supervisor for help and not present problems I am having in a very optimistic and breezy light: ‘oh yeah none of it works right now but by the next time I see you it’ll be great!’ Take it from me this is not a helpful approach! It is always best to ask for help upfront and talk it through with your supervisor—who I know is there to help me with the project—even if you do feel stupid at the time, it is better than come back week after week not having got over the initial problem. This is definitely something I’m working on.

I’m sure that getting confused and stressed about your project, as well as going down the wrong routes are part of the learning process, but at the moment it is really getting on top of me!

Not everything is bad however: doing some sport particularly helps me feel less stressed and I’ve been doing some bouldering (as in the picture) at a place that is quite close to Imperial ( if any of you want to try it out! I’ve also got a great running app that has audio of zombies chasing you which is really motivational, if also a little genuinely scary, especially in the dark.

My parents came down last weekend for a quick visit and we excitingly went and stood outside Downing Street to see if we could see any of the EU referendum drama. I’ve been invited (well I kind of just asked to go) to Voice of Young Science, which is a discussion between young scientists, politicians and policy makers with us (the young scientists!) asking the questions. I’ll be sure to try and find out lots more about the EU and many other science policy types of things there, and I’ll definitely be writing a blog sometime about why the EU is good for science funding and universities, a pretty important point that will probably be lost amongst the immigration and legal issues in the wider debate.


One comment for “Stress & the sea

  1. Hi Emma! I’m also Emma who does Physics =). I am in my 2nd year studying a PhD in Oceanography, in which I focus on underwater acoustics (very very similar to your 4th year project– I study ocean noises in the Arctic).

    I randomly stumbled across your blog while searching for career ideas, and I love it! Can you tell me more about the university system in the UK and why you are getting your MSci? Here is the US, we first do 4 years of BSci and then another 2 for MSci, or go straight into 5+ years of PhD as I have done.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.