Faculty Spotlight for January 2008
George Philander’s research interests include oceanic circulation, interactions between the ocean and atmosphere that contribute to phenomena such as El Nino and La Nina, and climate change -- especially the dramatic increase in the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to modest variations in sunlight (Milankovitch forcing) over the past several million years. This increase in sensitivity is evident in the graph of global temperature since the demise of the dinosaurs some sixty million years ago. Superimposed on a trend of gradual cooling attributable to processes associated with the drifting of the continents, are Milankovitch cycles that start to amplify during the Pliocene 3 million years ago and culminate in the recurrent Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. What happened 3 million years ago? The possibilities being explored include radical changes in oceanic circulation that introduced feedbacks between tropical oceans and the atmosphere, and changes in rainfall patterns that affected the salinity and thermal structure of the oceans.
In 2007 George Philander started dividing his time between Princeton University and the University of Cape Town (South Africa) where he is research director of the African Centre for Climate and Earth System Science (ACCESS), which is supported jointly by several universities and government agencies in South Africa. This center engages in research and education related to climate and environmental issues, and takes advantage of the exceptional diversity of climatic zones in southern Africa, a consequence of the strikingly different conditions in the three surrounding oceans; the waters off southwestern coast of Africa are cold and biologically highly productive, those of the southeastern coast are warm and contain entirely different species and the waters of the essentially unexplored Southern Ocean absorb a considerable amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide.