Moana work models sea heatwaves

 University of Otago marine science researchers Ata Suanda (left) and Robert Smith with an image...
University of Otago marine science researchers Ata Suanda (left) and Robert Smith with an image from a computer model of the Otago coastal ocean, showing simulated sea surface temperatures. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Learning more about marine heatwaves will better protect Dunedin’s standing as New Zealand’s wildlife capital, a Dunedin academic says.

University of Otago marine science department lecturers Robert Smith and Ata Suanda and are participants in the $11.5million national Moana Project.

This five-year project aims to revolutionise our understanding of New Zealand’s oceans and our ability to forecast its behaviour.

Dr Smith is studying marine heatwaves and their causes and Dr Suanda is helping develop detailed ocean computer models for Kaikoura and the Bay of Plenty.

These will add to an overall national model of coastal oceans, to strengthen predictions about ocean behaviour.

Marine heatwaves are extended periods of time when ocean temperatures are extremely warm. They can have harmful impacts on marine ecosystems, communities and industry.

Dr Smith said some people imagined that nearby marine heatwaves would be good for Dunedin, but, in fact, they could damage kelp and ecosystem health, and reduce the food supply for albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins.

"That’s what it’s about — it’s understanding what the problem is, to improve resiliency.

He said that marine heatwaves had long occurred around New Zealand, and a severe recent example affected much of the Tasman Sea and the ocean off New Zealand’s east coast, from November 2017 to February 2018.

During part of this time, water temperatures in the Otago Harbour rose 5degC higher than usual.

Water temperatures off the Otago coast were rising at a faster rate than in many parts of the North and South Island and heatwaves were projected to increase in frequency, duration and severity, he said.

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