Oceanographer Helen E. Phillips Investigates Currents, Climate Change

Born Loving the Sea

Climate Change – It’s not okay anymore.

Dr. Helen Phillips is a senior researcher in the area of physical oceanography. Her research is through the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

“There’s no biology in my area of oceanography. It is all physical science based on math and physics.

I was a bit of a drifter as a young person and I think a bit of an introvert as well. Socializing didn’t come easily for me.

But I enjoyed studying and I felt it a very rewarding thing. Math and physics were well-defined so when I answered a question correctly it was really obvious that it was correct. If you write an essay in English or history it’s a less exact science and maybe open to more interpretation of what is good and what is bad. So I liked the exactness of science.

When I left school I did not really have a clear idea of what I wanted to be but I knew that science was part of my life.  I had a boyfriend in my final year of high school and he was a bit distracting. I did not do as well as I perhaps should have given my comfort with studying. My parents were both doctors and I’m sure they had aspirations for me to become a doctor.

My uncle was a sailor and when I would visit with him he would take me sailing. Definitely oceanography I thought. Yes. I entered the Flinders University in South Australia and there they had a department of Earth Sciences. So I studied oceanography and meteorology as I have always loved the sea.”

Oceanography Research ‘Down Under’

University of Tasmania Link to Helen’s profile

My interest and research is in studying the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. It flows all of the way around Antarctica and separates the warm waters of the subtropics from the cold Antarctic.

We know that heat must cross this current because that’s how the Earth maintains a stable climate. It receives more sun around the equator and it loses a lot of heat around Antarctica and somehow there has to be a pathway from the incoming heat at the equator to the outgoing heat at the pole. Both the atmosphere and the ocean contribute to that cycle.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is like a big wall in the path of this movement of heat and so we need to understand the processes that allow the heat to move across the current. Eddies and the meandering of the current are a very key part of that story. So what we’ve learned in the Gulf Stream we are now applying to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and finding that it is very similar.

We are seeing strengthening winds across the Southern Ocean which are causing the currents to generate more Eddies so then it’s becoming more unstable.  Those Eddies are contributing to more rapid movement of heat. Everything is connected so the ocean temperatures are felt by the atmosphere and the ocean experiences change due to global warming. The amount of heat stored in the ocean increases and it has been increasing and it will continue to increase through global warming.”

Partial TranscriptInformation on some of the instruments, acronyms, etc.:

(Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research. Its chief role is to improve the economic and social performance of industry for the benefit of the community.

CSIRO works with leading organisations around the world. From its headquarters in Canberra, CSIRO maintains more than 50 sites across Australia and in France, Chile and the United States, employing about 5500 people.

Federally funded scientific research began in Australia 103 years ago. The Advisory Council of Science and Industry was established in 1916 but was hampered by insufficient available finance. In 1926 the research effort was reinvigorated by establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which strengthened national science leadership and increased research funding. CSIR grew rapidly and achieved significant early successes. In 1949 further legislated changes included re-naming the organisation as CSIRO.)

(Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS). BATS and Hydrostation S have proven invaluable in ocean and atmospheric science by producing data that helps us better understand global climate change and the ocean’s responses to variations in the Earth’s atmosphere. BATS and other deep-ocean time-series have highlighted the importance of biological diversity in understanding biological and chemical cycles, including “active” carbon transport by migratory zooplankton as part of the ocean’s Biological Carbon Pump. BATS scientists have also focused on carbon exchange between the ocean and atmosphere, seeking an understanding of how the ocean responds to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.)

(RAFOS acoustically-tracked, neutrally-buoyant subsurface floats which collect data while drifting beneath the ocean surface. The name RAFOS is the word SOFAR spelled backwards. SOFAR is an acronym for SOund Fixing And Ranging, which refers to the way these floats track the motion of water in the ocean. In large numbers, the floats can be used to map the mean currents over a wide area, and for statistical studies of dispersion and mixing. The acoustic tracking provides relatively high-resolution trajectories with position fixes several times each day. This can be especially valuable in studies of eddies and boundary currents.)

(CTD-an acronym for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth — is the primary tool for determining essential physical properties of sea water. It gives scientists a precise and comprehensive charting of the distribution and variation of water temperature, salinity, and density that helps to understand how the oceans affect life.)

(Triaxus – It is developed for high-speed oceanographic data acquisition work and is designed to undulate between 1 and 350 metres*. Lateral offsets of up to 80 metres to either side of the ship is possible, enabling the vertical profiling to be carried out in an undisturbed water column. Towing speed* between 2 and 10 knots and vertical speed* of up to 1 metre per second are possible.)

R/V Investigator

In Australia we have what we call the Marine National Facility and a ship called the R/V Investigator. (RV is Research vessel.) It is available for all Australians to use but you have to make a proposal to say what you are going to do with this ship and you have to support it by showing that you’re a scientist with some track record in doing good work and writing publications and communicating with the public, and demonstrating that you will do good things with the resources of the ship.

One applies a couple of years ahead from when we actually want to use the ship. We have to explain the scientific background for why we are doing this work. We have to say how many days it will take and what equipment will be used and whom our International collaborators will be. If you are successful and competition is very tough then you get the ship and they tell you what dates you have the ship for. So for those dates you have access to this ship and the people that run it for free.

It is like a grant but it is not money but rather it is the ship and the ship time and the resources on board. So you still have to pay to move your people to where the ship is and bring the instruments on the ship. You go out on the ship and it is like a little village. There are cooks that are making our food – three meals a day-three hot meals a day and there are always things to graze on. There’s the officers who are operating the ship and the deck crew who are supporting most of the operation of the ship and then there’s the scientific work that’s going on.

1 Comment

  1. Catherine on 07/30/2019 at 2:49 PM

    I received this exciting email from Matt, at CSIRO- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science research agency.

    Hi Catherine
    We all love your podcast and blog about Helen’s life and research, and are very happy to promote Helen’s story.

    It’s a particular focus of the Marine National Facility to tell the personal stories of researchers that use RV Investigator – especially women working in STEM and leadership roles, such as Helen.

    These are important stories that really resonate and inspire our next generation of marine scientists and experts.

    Thanks for providing us with this great opportunity!



    Matt Marrison
    Communications Advisor
    CSIRO Marine National Facility

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