EOAS Faculty Member Nicholas Beaird Focuses on the Physics of High-Latitude Oceans

By Carol Peters

Beaird seeks to understand small and regional processes that have a global impact on ocean circulation and climate. 

“Understanding some key small-scale processes that transfer heat and salt between the polar oceans, ice sheets, and the atmosphere,” are the research focus of Nicholas Beaird, a new member of the faculty at the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS) and the Rutgers Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences (DMCS). 

Nicholas Beaird, Ph.D. seeks to understand small and regional processes that have a global impact on ocean circulation and climate.
Nicholas Beaird, Ph.D.

Beaird, a physical oceanographer, said, “These small and regional scale processes can have global impacts on ocean circulation and climate. Understanding these little processes are one step in the direction of making more confident predictions about how our oceans and climate will change in the future.” 

Beaird earned his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, where the focus of his thesis was on using autonomous vehicles to measure the overflow of dense water from the Nordic Sea into the subpolar North Atlantic. 

Following his graduate work, Beaird was a postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he studied glacier-driven water mass transformation in Greenland’s proglacial fjords, and a postdoctoral research associate at Oregon State University, where he focused on turbulence and biophysical interactions in the Arctic. 

Read our Q&A with Beaird to learn more about his research, teaching, and involvement in the Masters of Integrated Ocean Observing, a new graduate program offered by DMCS. 

What is the focus of your current research?

One of my current areas of focus has been understanding the pathways and spreading the glacial ice melt from Greenland. Knowing where this meltwater goes and how it interacts with, and is incorporated into, ocean circulation may help us improve our understanding of how the ocean will change as Greenland’s ice sheet shrinks.

What are key and/or surprising findings?

Over the past few years, collaborators and I have deployed some new tools to track meltwater around Greenland. These observations are made using new techniques, and they have confirmed some surprising results about the pathways of glacial melt. One finding is that much of this buoyant meltwater actually gets trapped and exported not at the ocean’s surface, but pretty deep. We’ve also found that these meltwaters tend to stir up nutrients from deep in glacial fjords, and are potentially an important source of ‘food’ for ecosystems. Additionally, we have some evidence that the release of meltwater from Greenland’s fjords into the open ocean may be delayed relative to the annual melting season. This surprising timing may impact how we think meltwater interacts with regional circulation. 

 What are some next steps? 

The next steps in this work are to make some explicit (observational) connections with the regional scale. So far, much of my meltwater work has been done in the ocean really close to the glacier (within the fjord). We ultimately want to know how this water interacts with regional and global circulation. An important next step is to extend these fjord measurements on the continental shelf around Greenland and expand our picture of meltwater spreading. Greenland’s shelves are severely under-sampled regions that are critical to a broader understanding of ocean-glacier interactions.

How are you involved in the Master of Integrated Ocean Observing?

I am very involved in developing the courses and guiding the evolution of the program. This is the first year of the program, so I’m teaching the classes for the first time and working to understand what needs to change and improve to better serve the students. 
How does this master’s program differ from other similar degrees offered by other universities and what are your teaching goals for the program?

This program is different from the other graduate school offerings in DMCS, and other oceanography programs around the country, in that it is very targeted at teaching applied oceanographic skills. The students coming out of this program are expected to start working in ‘operational oceanography’ in the maritime industrial sector, non-profits, or government agencies. Our intent is to help the students acquire the skills necessary to collect high quality ocean data that can be quickly utilized to inform decision making. This is a different approach than the ‘traditional’ graduate program focus on basic research in oceanography.  We intend our students to be fully immersed in our working operational ocean observatory. The goal is to get them hands-on experience in the cradle-to-grave process of ocean data acquisition, including experience with cutting edge ocean observing technology. Many of the skills I try to teach the students are both valuable in applied oceanography and highly transferable to any data intensive field. 
Are you teaching this year? If so, what are the most important messages you strive to communicate to your students? 

I am teaching this year. I’ve been teaching courses on: 1) scientific coding in Python, 2) a survey of modern oceanographic instruments and their principles of operation, and 3) ‘field methods’ for successful deployment and recovery of instrumentation in the ocean. Beyond the specifics of the technology I try to guide the students to develop a deep level of data literacy.

What do you enjoy the most about being at Rutgers?

I am new here, but so far and really enjoying the mix of basic and applied research in DMCS. Both in my own work and more broadly in the department I enjoy the balance of asking and answering fundamental questions about the physics of the ocean and climate, with targeted questions of clear applications for society and industry. The excitement and involvement of students, particularly undergraduates and early graduate students is also very special here.