One of Sebastiaan Swart’s dreams as a scientist is to reveal secrets that the Antarctic Ocean hides under its ice. In the immediate future he will work on developing new data collection methods such as robots in Swedish waters.
One of Sebastiaan Swart’s dreams as a scientist is to reveal secrets that the Antarctic Ocean hides under its ice. In the immediate future he will work on developing new data collection methods such as robots in Swedish waters.In August Sebastiaan Swart left sunny Cape Town to move with his family to a darker and chilly Gothenburg. He is an oceanographer and a specialist in gliders, small robots programmed to travel around in the ocean collecting data that is transmitted via satellite back to the researchers.
He notes that we need a lot more knowledge about the oceans and processes there to understand phenomena such as what causes climate change.
‘One of the greatest difficulties with predicting climate is that we don’t know enough about what is going on in the ocean. For example, how it emits or absorbs heat from the atmosphere and how the exchange of CO2 between the ocean and the atmosphere occurs.’
Sebastiaan Swart has been named a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, a very desirable career programme for young promising researchers, and for five years he will work at the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Gothenburg. An important mission during his time in Sweden is to develop the technical capacity to produce high-quality marine data, and this involves procuring and introducing gliders
‘The first one can be in place as early as April, and we already are planning now to use it in the Skagerrak. A glider that collects dust is not a good glider. It should be in the water. Sweden has no such robots and has fallen behind compared with other countries.’
Swart believes this may be due in part to the fact that Sweden is close to the surrounding sea, and therefore it is not very complicated to conduct research via ship.
His home base is at the University of Cape Town, and he has participated in more than 10 expeditions to Antarctica and the Antarctic Ocean. One problem for researchers there is that the sea is partly covered with ice so little is known about the waters under the ice.
‘It’s hard to make observations because ice blocks the water, instruments fail to work and things break down. Ships can’t stay there for a long time or may not get there at all, and satellites cannot see the water because of the ice.’
But gliders can get to places that are hard to reach by ship. There are two types: those that dive 1,000 metres into the depths of the ocean and come up again, and those that go across the surface at a speed of 2 knots. They can be out for months at a time, which means that they can cover huge areas and measure everything from temperature and wind velocity to salinity, carbon dioxide content and oxygen content.
Consequently, they can gather vast amounts of data. And they are comparatively cheap.
‘It costs as much to provide one ice-breaking ship with fuel for a month as to buy eight gliders. But ships also are needed to place or retrieve gliders and for measurements that gliders can’t make.’
The biggest challenges gliders face is that mussels love to fasten on them and that they can be subjected to attacks by sharks or the curiosity of seals.
Sebastiaan Swart also is active in the SOOS, Southern Ocean Observing System, a global research organisation founded five years ago. Its purpose is to coordinate research on ecosystems in the ocean around Antarctica under one umbrella rather than having each country operate its own projects.
Swart was very surprised when he realised that no scientific study of oceanographic observations in the Skagerrak had been published since 1997. Only modelling calculations have been done.
‘It’s shocking! That’s the word I want to use. It is astonishing that there have not been more observations in waters that are so important for Sweden. We must have observations to see if the models are correct.’
Sward anticipates a very bright future here. He envisages Sweden becoming a world leader in marine technology and would like to see a Swedish fleet of marine robots of various types within a few years.
In the immediate future, he is hoping for a month-long data collection in the Skagerrak next summer where temperature, salinity, oxygen content, plankton concentration, currents and other factors will be measured.
‘It would be extremely valuable and reveal much about small-scale variations in Skagerrak oceanography.’
‘This is a fantastic opportunity for Sweden’
Wallenberg Academy Fellows is a career programme in which the most promising young researchers in all disciplines receive funding to develop their research on a long-term basis. The goal is to give promising young researchers the opportunity to focus on their research and tackle difficult and long-term research issues.
Every year about 30 new fellows are chosen after being nominated by universities and evaluated by participating academies. Some are active at the nominating university, while others, like Sebastiaan Swart, are based at a university or research institute abroad.
Anna Wåhlin is a professor of oceanography at the University of Gothenburg and will be working with Sebastiaan Swart. Marine research is facing a major change with the methods used to monitor the oceans. New discoveries have shown that variations in the ocean occur on much smaller scales than has been recognised up to now, which means that the amount of measurements must increase.
’We need to move away from dependence on large research vessels, which are a very limited resource, and shift to a much higher degree to autonomous measurement platforms, such as the gliders which Sebastiaan has specialised in’, Wåhlin says. ‘This development is rapidly gaining ground in the rest of the world, but so far Sweden has lagged behind.’
She tells us that they “were aiming for the stars” when they asked if Sebastiaan could imagine applying and were both happy and surprised when he agreed to. The fact that he then became one of ten 2015 Wallenberg Academy Fellows in science in Sweden and is now located in Gothenburg is extremely positive.
‘This is a fantastic opportunity for Sweden and the University of Gothenburg in particular. It will be the start of a new era in Sweden now that we have access to the autonomous measurement techniques that are so vitally important for the future and for developing a modern measurement tradition in Sweden.’
Family: wife and son soon to be age 2.
Important in life: going to yoga at least twice a week.
Interests: scuba diving, cross-country running and travelling: ‘we take our son to cool places’. Most recently in Sri Lanka.
Reads: biographies, a favourite being Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Last read book is a nonfiction book about a multi-day race by Indians in the Amazon.