Interview with Brian O'Connor

Coastal and Marine Research Centre, UCC




1. How did your interest in Meteorology and Geography develop and how did you select your Ph.D. Thesis topic?

My interest in the environment in general developed at an early age from an interest in nature studies in primary school. Later on, during my B.Sc in Environmental sciences I chose Geography as my core subject as it kept all my options open to study various aspects of the physical and human environment. My interest in meteorology is more recent however as the topic of my PhD cover is closely related to agro meteorology. However, as a surfer I always had an interest in weather charts for predicting the waves! My PhD topic is a feasibility study of using satellite remote sensing as a broad-scale mapping tool for monitoring vegetation seasonality across the island of Ireland. The idea is based on evidence from the Irish phenological gardens indicating that spring is occurring earlier and therefore the growing season is being extended.


2. We heard that you take a ferry to your office - has weather ever prevented you from getting there?

No, luckily the weather is generally not a problem owing to the shelter provided by Cork Harbour although the ferry is sometimes cancelled due to poor visibility in fog or choppy water in high winds. Combined with the train from Cork, it’s a pleasant journey to work!

3. Could you describe a typical day at work?

My job is generally desk-based although I used to observe tree phenology on a weekly basis in nearby woodland as part of my PhD which was a great break from the computer. I generally try to get any thesis or report writing done in the morning when the mind is clear! Lunchtime might be followed by a short walk around the historic naval base on Haulbowline Island. The afternoon might be spent mulling over some computer programming or satellite image processing tasks.

4. Notwithstanding the overall long-term impacts of climate change on a global scale, is it possible that an earlier/extended growing season here in Ireland due to warmer spring/autumn temperatures could be seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage to farmers?

I think any advancement or extension in the growing season could impact positively on Irish farming but adaptability to the changing climate pattern is essential if agriculture is to benefit. Extremes in climate such as drought and intense rainfall events will continue to pose a challenge to farmers into the future however. On the upside, there is also the prospect of new crops such as grape vines in Ireland if the climate continues to warm as predicted. 

5. Using the MERIS FAPAR satellite measurements, what soil types and vegetation in Ireland are most susceptible to both year on year variability and longer-term climate impacts?

It seems that the most managed vegetation types tend to vary year on year, e.g. agricultural areas and managed grasslands due to land use practices. Surprisingly the most natural vegetation types, e.g. peat bogs, vary the least as their ecosystem is highly tuned to local climate and human impacts are minimal. However, it has been difficult to separate the climate variation from that induced by land use as the seasonality indicators used are general measures of change in photosynthetic activity which can be influenced by multiple drivers.   


6. The Coastal and Marine Research Centre (CMRC) where you work sounds really interesting - can you summarise the programmes the centre is involved in?

The CMRC is part of University College Cork and is an inter-disciplinary research centre with a focus on enhancing understanding of a range of marine and coastal issues in Ireland and abroad. The majority of the Centre’s funding is from the competitive European Framework Research and InterReg programmes, but national funding is also vital. There are approximately 40 staff who work in the areas of marine ecology, coastal governance, geomatics, coastal processes and seabed mapping, applied remote sensing and GIS. The marine ecology group has been actively researching the impact of climate variability on marine mammals, seabirds and other components of the ecosystem including plankton, sunfish, sharks, turtles and jellyfish. The governance group researches aspects of climate adaptation in the coastal zone. The applied remote sensing and GIS group is the newest group in the Centre and works on applications in both the marine and terrestrial environments. 


7. What is your earliest weather memory?

Smashing frozen puddles on the way to school, this practice has been revived in the last two winters!


8. What is your favourite weather type and why?

Perfectly still winters days induced by high pressure with bright sunshine, blue skies and cold, crisp air. When there is Atlantic swell, these conditions create perfect surfing waves.

9. What interests have you outside of meteorology?

I like swimming, surfing and outdoor pursuits as well as going to the cinema and reading when I can. My studies have taken up a good bit of free time lately but hopefully when it’s all over will have more time for these things.


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