Exploring the oceans

My name is Berit Rabe and I am a female sea-going physical oceanographer. What does an oceanographer do? I don’t count whales and dolphins – that is Marine Biology – instead as the name suggests, I study the physical components of the ocean. I look at tides, currents, circulation, temperature, salinity, etc. by going out on research vessels, collecting and analysing data, and interpreting the results.

Dr Berit Rabe on board Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen in Nares Strait, next to her favourite instruments that can measure temperature, conductivity, pressure, and take water samples.

Dr Berit Rabe on board Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen in Nares Strait, next to her favourite instruments that can measure temperature, conductivity, pressure, and take water samples.

How did I get into oceanography?

I have always been interested in science and knew that I wanted to study biology, geography or something similar at university. While I attended high school the local university in Hamburg, Germany offered an open day and I ended up visiting all science-related events. That’s when I first heard about physical oceanography. I learned that the Hamburg institute was involved in some interesting projects in the North Atlantic, the relationship between students and staff was good, and I was told about one of the degree requirements: spending six weeks at sea on research vessels. I was hooked!

Studying and spending time out on the ocean as part of my studies sounded like a great combination. During my studies I enjoyed getting experience on different international research vessels in the North Atlantic, Baltic Sea, and even around Antarctica. My MSc thesis was investigating freshwater signals in the East Greenland Current.

After university I moved to Halifax, Canada and worked at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography for a few months. I was writing computer programs to prepare observations from the Labrador Sea for a model input.

I was interested in doing more research and focusing on a specific project so I signed up for a PhD at the University of Delaware which included a year at Oregon State University. I investigated the flow of water, especially very fresh water, from the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic through Nares Strait, between Greenland and northern Canada at 80.5º N. I analysed data from instruments that were deployed in the strait and left to record data for three years before we went back to recover them. For the deployment and recovery I went out on Canadian icebreakers for four weeks at a time, see the picture above.

It was exciting to do research in a remote region that not many people had visited and explored. The ice conditions within Nares Strait vary between moving and non-moving ice (the ice acts like a lid) and we found different amounts of freshwater flowing south depending on these ice conditions. With possible changing ice conditions in the strait in the future this might have implications on the amount of freshwater that will get exported from the Arctic through this strait.

After finishing my PhD I applied for research positions related to interesting projects all over the world. I accepted a position with Marine Scotland Science in Aberdeen, Scotland and have worked there in the oceanography group for the last four years.

What does the work of an oceanographer involve?

My official job title is “Inshore Physical Oceanographer”, a diverse role since I am involved in different projects around Scotland. My recent research has been part of a larger multi-disciplinary project, which looks at the spread of sea lice within a sea loch on the west coast of Scotland. Collaborating with other researchers from the aquaculture team and the industry puts your own work into perspective.

My role in the project is to help understand the circulation in the sea loch, measure winds around the loch to feed into a model, validate the model, and analyse current, temperature and salinity data. The winds get funnelled up and down the long and narrow loch due to the mountains on either side. The circulation is therefore influenced by the winds, but also by tides and the freshwater input from rivers. The loch is even wide enough for the Earth’s rotation to have an effect on the circulation.

Another aspect of my work is to give advice to the Licensing and Operations Team at Marine Scotland. This means I read over applications related to engineering projects along the coast, dumping of material in the sea, etc., and evaluate if there will be changes to the marine environment. I also give lectures at the University of Aberdeen and am involved in outreach, as a STEM ambassador and part of ScienceGrrl Aberdeen.

I am writing this article on board Marine Scotland’s research vessel RV Scotia in the North Atlantic. We take water samples between Shetland and Faeroe in the Faeroe-Shetland-Channel, deploy and recover moorings, and measure different physical parameters to determine different water masses and the flow within the channel.

When I am not at sea or in the field I spend time programming (in Matlab), analysing data, and publishing results. Part of being a researcher also involves giving presentations at international conferences (lots of times in exciting places like Hawaii, Oslo, Plymouth or Edinburgh). Travelling to different countries and meeting up with like-minded people and your friends in the field is a great perk of the job.

Cold and wet, but a great sense of working together

Research cruises originally enticed me into the field of oceanography and research cruises are still the part of my job that inspire me and are one of my job highlights. It is hard work, often in shift patterns, it can be cold and wet and some people get sea-sick – I have always been fine. But you feel a great sense of working together, you see where the data is coming from, spot wildlife such as whales, penguins or polar bears, and visit many diverse locations  from Iceland and Italy to Patagonia.

Oceanography is an exciting subject with still more to explore and lots of enthusiastic researchers. So my advice to you:

Be pro-active, be flexible and do what you love!