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Notre Dame Researchers Focus Their Attention on the Understudied Indian Ocean

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

Nunzia Pirro started her PhD on a boat in the Indian Ocean. In between bouts of seasickness, she measured the velocity of currents and the salinity and temperature of the shallow ocean in various parts of the Bay of Bengal.

She explained, “I started on a boat. I touched my data. This gave me the right enthusiasm to do my PhD.”

Nunzia Pirro on board a research vessel in the Indian Ocean.

Pirro works in Professor Harindra Fernando’s lab. Professor Fernando along with collaborators around the globe are attempting to better understand the air-sea interaction in the Indian Ocean. They are collecting data and uncovering patterns that could be used in the future to better forecast both regional and global weather and climate.

Over a billion people live along the Indian Ocean and rely on it’s monsoon rains for agriculture and drinking water and are susceptible to drought and severe weather stemming from the Ocean. Pirro hopes that her research will aid in forecasting weather patterns, so that governments and communities can mitigate potential harm and build resilience.

Pirro shared that being in Sri Lanka, “[she] realized it was not just lab work. It was something that had social and human impact.” In fact it was this potential for social impact that drew Pirro away from her home and family in Italy to pursue a PhD under Professor Fernando at Notre Dame.

Professor Fernando is involved in projects all over the world from studying the effects of climate change and green roofs on wind patterns and air quality in Chicago to studying topography and wind farm placement in Portugal. Professor Fernando’s project in the Indian Ocean, however, holds special significance to him, for he was born and raised in Sri Lanka, so he knows first hand the power of the ocean.

He recalled, “I swam but in the rivers, because the Indian Ocean is very strong because of the monsoons. Two of my friends drowned at a young age, and my parents basically said, ‘No you are not going to swim in the ocean.’ And we also were scared after some time. Even now I don’t swim there.”

Professor Fernando regularly meets with top governmental officials from the countries that surround the Indian Ocean, who are interested in the potential applications of his research. India recently demonstrated the significance of forecasting when it was able to successfully minimize the effects of a predicted drought by preemptively rearranging water allocation. All the data that Professor Fernando’s team collects is available through open portals.

The Indian Ocean is key to global weather and climate because it is an energetic region and has a strong influence on El Niño, the Madden-Julian Oscillation and other patterns that affect rainfall across a majority of the globe. Patrick Conry, who is a 5th year PhD student at Notre Dame and is studying atmospheric patterns over the Indian Ocean, explained that many climate models are divergent in this area, especially when it comes to rainfall patterns because this area simply is not well understood. He hopes that the data that he and collaborators are compiling will help climate modelers build better mathematical parameters and thereby be able to more accurately model global climate change.

Currently the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are better understood than the Indian Ocean, but Professor Fernando, Nunzia Pirro, Patrick Conry, and their collaborators, including many researchers from countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, are working to change that, which will have significance both on our understanding of global climate and the ability of over a billion people to plan for drought, rain and severe weather.    

Device taking atmospheric measurements to better understand air-sea interactions.