Marine Environmental Research in the Department of Oceanography

Understanding the impacts of climate change and wind patterns. This South African is doing everything he can in order to better understand and predict the ocean environment in our country.


For all the satellite imagery and global information available about the ocean, the true patterns of its currents and its responses to change are often shrouded in mystery. These are mysteries Dr Björn Backeberg, oceanographic researcher and co-director of the Nansen-Tutu Centre for Marine Environmental Research in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Cape Town, is working to understand.

As possibly the only scholar in South Africa working in the area of ocean data assimilation with its significant importance for operational oceanography, Backeberg aims to ultimately develop a tool for use by the Weather Service and the department of environmental affairs to accurately predict ocean current behavior and responses to changing conditions.

“My research over the past 10 years has focused on developing a regional ocean model that can assimilate ocean observations in order to better understand and predict the ocean environment around South Africa. Working with numerical models and analysing and visualising a large variety of ocean and atmospheric data, I have developed a high level of numeracy in a variety of programming languages.”

Backeberg has a PhD in physical oceanography and numerical modelling from the University of Cape Town. His research over the past 10 years has been geared towards developing the tools and methodologies to advance the quantitative understanding of the dynamical ocean environment in the greater Agulhas Current region.

Backeberg works predominantly on numerical ocean modelling and data assimilation techniques, which are integral components in ocean climate research as well as ocean forecasting. One of his research objectives is to improve the ability to monitor and predict ocean state variables around South Africa up to the coast in support of maritime environmental activities and research.

Having initially set out to study business science in Cape Town, Backeberg quickly realised that his interest lay in the ocean. As a keen surfer and commercial diver, he wanted to work in a field related to the ocean.

“But I was never very good at biology,” he admits, “So I did not go in to marine biology, the more ‘romantic’ side of marine sciences.”

Instead, his focus is on numerical modelling with the help of supercomputers, to understand the impacts of climate change and wind patterns on ocean currents. Among a number of papers he has written, in 2012 he co-authored an important article on climate change effects in the Indian Ocean and the Agulhas Current, in the prestigious international journal Nature Climate Change.

His work is challenging, he says, because of the complexity and cost involved in gathering accurate data on the vast ocean. The most rewarding aspects of the work are occasional trips out to sea, and discovering that simulations have accurately predicted the real conditions.

It’s engaging work, he says: “There is still so much to be done. There are unbelievable mysteries in the ocean — every day you find something new.”

In addition to developing models to help us better understand ocean currents, Backeberg hopes that his work will ultimately contribute to job creation for more oceanographic researchers.

“It’s an interesting field, but the career path in oceanography is not well developed in South Africa. Hopefully by developing the operational aspect of oceanography, we can create more opportunities for students to study the science and work in the marine sector of industry.” 

Sources: CSIR
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Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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