Inside CAS

College of Arts and Sciences


Studying Sea Surface Salinity and Ocean Color to Understand Climate Change

Monday, August 08, 2016


Written by Olivia Dawson ’16; Photo by Jennifer Chin

The field of physics offers numerous opportunities for inquiry, and Dr. Frederick Bingham, professor of physics and physical oceanography, discovered a passion for environmental physics that led him to graduate school to study oceanography.

Having taught at UNCW for 22 years, Bingham still actively takes part in environmental research experiments. His main focus is the study of sea surface salinity and how it affects weather and climate change.

“Physics is in many ways the study of motion and the movement of energy from one place to another,” explains Bingham. “The study of physics within the environment is how we understand the weather. Climate change is all based on physics.”

Bingham started studying distributions of salinity levels in the ocean. Salinity is the concentration of dissolved salts in the ocean. Just like salt intake can affect our bodies, salinity levels can affect the water cycle. This process also affects climate change, which is a growing global concern in the midst of increasingly hot summers. Research could help scientists understand the causes and effects of global warming. 

Bingham says, “To better understand the importance of sea salt salinity, you have to take it back to the study of earth science and the water cycle. Without this cycle, water would not appear on land.” However, scientists have had a difficult time measuring the levels of precipitation and evaporation. Studying sea surface salinity is helping researchers like Bingham gain a better understanding of how these processes affect atmospheric conditions in the ocean. 

Bingham is currently working on two research projects. One is Aquarius, a satellite built by NASA, which measured sea surface salinity from space from 2011-2015. The satellite offered a new map of globalized ocean surface salinity every seven days. Bingham studies these maps today to observe the different levels of salinity in order to understand why they may be higher in one location than another.

The second is the Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS), which is a set of two field experiments that study water cycles in specific regions of the ocean. SPURS-1 has already gathered data in the North Atlantic during 2012-2013. SPURS-2 takes place in the tropical Pacific and is set to begin in August. When the campaigns are completed, researchers hope to have a better understanding of how the water cycle relates to climate.

Bingham is also part of a localized funding project for North Carolina to launch a satellite that will observe ocean color. The satellite, no bigger than a flatbed scanner, will capture images at a much higher resolution than Aquarius.

“When you look outside, you see green plants, right?” says Bingham. “Well, if you look at the ocean and you see a lot of green, that means there are plants like phytoplankton growing in there,” he says. “We want to try to understand the productivity of the ocean.” The satellite is currently under construction and is scheduled to launch at the end of the year if the proposal is approved.