Pierrick Penven and South Africa share a long history. The scientist has been studying the currents bordering the country for more than 20 years. We met him during his last visit in Cape Town, at the crossing of three oceans.
The ocean is a key part of Pierrick Penven’s life. Born in Brittany (France), his feet were immersed in salty water during his childhood. Once grown up, he quickly chose physical oceanography in order to combine the disciplines that fascinated him: fluid mechanics and computer science. He conducted his PhD on one of the currents bordering Southern Africa: the Benguela. This current is formed by the movement of cold waters from the Cape of Good Hope to Namibia and Angola. "My objective is to create numerical models of the currents. We can model their strength, their orientation, eddies, the interactions with the topography of the ocean, etc. Understanding the phenomenon of currents helps us to better understand marine ecosystems, marine geology and even the global climate."
Southern Africa as a marine playground
After studying the currents of California and Peru for a while, Pierrick is now focusing on the east coast of Southern Africa, developing models of the Agulhas Current and the Mozambique Channel. "The Agulhas current is fascinating because it is one of the most powerful in the world. It is approximately 100km wide and it brings large quantities of warm, salty water from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic. It carries about 400 times the volume of water transported by the Amazon river! Studies have shown that its acceleration or slowdown can affect the global climate."
For Pierrick, sea is not just a job. He travels the oceans on board his 10-meter sailboat during amateur competitions, such as a solo transatlantic race in 2015. “My scientific knowledge sometimes helps me to understand the sea conditions and the effects of currents on the boat. I can then adapt my strategy. On other occasions, sailing contributes to science, for example during the emergence of Sargassum algae in the Caribbean. I suggested to sailboats stuck in algae to take samples for my colleagues!"
Partnering and sharing
Solitary? Not in science. Pierrick has worked for many years with South African researchers from the Cape area (University of Cape Town, Cape Peninsula University of Technology) on the development of oceanographic models. Prioritizing training, he supports many African students in their early scientific career, some of whom become regular colleagues. "Training and partnership in the South is key to my work, and it is a pleasure to collaborate with them!", he smiled.