Announcement of opportunity: Southern Ocean's role in the Earth system scoping group

Closing date: 16:00 on 8 March 2016

NERC invites applications to join a scoping group that will develop the science case for a potential large strategic research programme on the 'Southern Ocean's role in the Earth system'.

This is one of three potential 'strategic programme areas' (SPAs) which have emerged from the ideas process for strategic research. We do not expect to be able to fund all three potential SPAs, and any potential SPA must meet NERC's criteria for a strategic programme, so it is possible that none of them will result in funded programmes.

The Southern Ocean is the biggest data desert on the planet, especially in winter, and this has severely hampered progress in understanding its role in carbon and heat transport. Our current climate and Earth system models disagree (with each other, and with the available observations) on almost all the important issues concerning Southern Ocean heat and carbon uptake, mechanisms and formation rates for deep water, and causes of past natural change. Similarly, they disagree on how the region will respond in the future under climate change.

The proposed programme will potentially deliver:

  • A large-scale cross-disciplinary observational programme that focuses primarily on biogeochemistry. It will build upon national capability within the NERC research centres on the ocean regulation of climate by expanding the seasonal extent and including measurements of micronutrients, tracers and other key variables that are required to understand the biological carbon sink, and the controls on the rates and patterns of acidification.
  • A coherent and ambitious theory and modelling programme to gain insight into the key dynamical and biogeochemical controls of the Southern Ocean system, and their representation in predictive Earth system models.
  • A palaeo-oceanography programme to generate new insight into the global and local consequences of past variation in Southern Ocean circulation, sea ice extent and biogeochemistry, in response to forcings that were very different from the present day.
  • Most importantly, strong cross-linkages between all the above programmes: a full understanding of the Southern Ocean's role in the Earth system will involve active and intense cross-disciplinary research.

The biogeochemical focus of the proposed programme will add significant value to the potential physical observations and transects proposed by NERC research centres as part of our national capability in the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean. This environment is challenging and, especially outside summer, poorly observed. Thus, this programme will draw on the novel autonomous technologies that NERC has been developing in recent years (eg Autosub Long Range) to support year-round operations, and to carry sensor packages that measure key biogeochemical and oceanic properties.

The proposed programme's overarching objective is to improve understanding of key processes in the Southern Ocean to enable the development of an enhanced model prediction capability that can provide robust assessments of how the ocean biological pump will change over the 21st century. Science questions may include:

  • What are the key mechanisms that control the strength of Southern Ocean carbon uptake and its response to changing climate?
  • How has carbon uptake and outgassing changed in the past, how will it change in the future, and what will be the climatic and ecological consequences?
  • What are the limiting factors controlling the biological carbon pump in the Southern Ocean, and how are these modulated by climate change?

Applications are invited from individuals wishing to join the scoping group that will develop the science case for consideration by NERC.

Scoping group meeting

Professor Alberto Naveira Garabato of the University of Southampton has agreed to chair the scoping group. Members will be selected by NERC via an open call for self-nomination. It is anticipated that the scoping group will be made up of around 10-12 individuals and will have an appropriate scientific balance. Members of the scoping group are expected to act as representatives of their scientific disciplines, and to act in the interests of the scientific community as a whole, rather than representing personal or institutional interests. The composition of the group will be decided by NERC with input from the chair of the scoping group and a representative of NERC's Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG). NERC reserves the right to appoint members to the scoping group who haven't applied to achieve the balance of representation required.

The scoping group will convene for a two-day meeting which all members must attend. The group will be tasked with producing a science case by the end of May 2016. This meeting will take place on 20-21 April at a venue in the London area. By applying to join this scoping group you are confirming your availability to attend the two-day meeting.

If the proposed research programme is approved, members of the scoping group will be able to apply for funding, subject to normal NERC eligibility rules.


Applicants should complete an application form and submit it via email to Jessica Surma at by 16:00 on Tuesday 8 March 2016. Successful applicants will be informed of the outcome by Thursday 24 March 2016

NERC will cover all reasonable travel and subsistence costs associated with attending the two day meeting in line with NERC policy.

Application form (Word, 28KB)

For further information please contact:

Jessica Surma