The influence of surfactants on the mechanisms of ocean bubble generation, and the consequences for air-sea gas transfer.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering & the Environment


This project will examine how natural ocean substances affect the production of bubbles in the ocean. Bubbles are important for many of the processes that happen in the top few metres of the ocean. They are mostly generated by breaking waves, and although the larger ones rise to the surface very quickly and burst, the smaller bubbles can remain trapped in the ocean for several minutes. Both large and small bubbles are important for the transfer of gas from the atmosphere to the ocean, since they provide lots of surface area where the gas inside the bubble can touch the ocean and may dissolve in it. Breaking waves generate a considerable amount of background noise in the ocean, because every newly-formed bubble emits a pulse of sound. Bubbles can also absorb and redirect sound that comes from other sources, and so knowledge of the bubbles present is important for understanding how sonar pulses and other sound from below the surface bounces off the top of the ocean. As modelling of weather and the effect of high winds and storms improves, an increasing level of detail is needed to understand the physics of the ocean surface properly. We now understand that very small events like bubble production can make a significant difference to larger processes in the ocean like gas absorption, so knowledge of the number and size of bubbles that exist in the ocean is becoming increasingly important. Bubbles underneath breaking waves are formed because of the intense turbulence that exists for the first second or two after wave breaking. This turbulence will distort the bubbles and may break a large bubble into two or more smaller bubbles. These smaller bubbles may fragment in turn, and the process continues until the turbulence is no longer strong enough to break the bubbles up. In addition, bubbles may bump into each other and coalesce, making larger bubbles out of two smaller ones. All these processes determine how many bubbles there are just after a wave breaks and how big they are, and then this fixed population of bubbles rises and dissolves and changes more slowly with time. The distortion of a bubble depends on the strength of the turbulence and the way the bubble surface behaves. The surface tends to reduce the distortion and so prevent the bubble breaking up. Previous research has investigated bubble splitting in clean fresh water and salt water, but natural ocean water contains many other substances, which are generated by the small organisms in the water (for example algae, tiny plants and tiny animals). Many of these substances will stick to bubble surfaces and may change how the bubble surface behaves, including the probability of splitting and rejoining. This fellowship project will look at single bubbles splitting into two bubbles and pairs of bubbles joining together to form one bigger bubble in turbulence, and compare what happens with and without the natural ocean chemicals present. Then, artificial waves will be generated and allowed to break in a wave tank with and without the additional chemicals , so that we can see the changes in the number and size of bubbles that are caused by the chemicals. Finally, the bubbles in real breaking waves at sea will be studied to look for the same effects. The overall results will help us understand how the natural chemistry of the ocean could affect how the ocean and the atmosphere interact. Ocean chemistry can be very different in different regions of the ocean, and this is not currently taken into account in the measurement of natural bubble populations and their effects.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/H016856/1 04/10/2010 22/11/2013 £305,156
NE/H016856/2 Transfer NE/H016856/1 01/12/2013 30/09/2014 £93,184
Title Named on Science Magazine's list of "100 twitter science stars" in 2014 
Description I regularly tweet about my research and ocean science. Currently I have 12,600 followers, and I was named on this list by Science Magazine. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact Lots of tweets... 
Title Presented a BBC4 programme on bubbles, which has been repeated at least 5 times. Title: "Pop! The science of bubbles" 
Description I developed and presented a very successful one-hour documentary on bubbles (named by the controller of BBC2 and BBC4 as one of the highlights of the year: It included my own research as well as that of other bubble researchers. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Lots of e-mails and discussion afterwards, and several offers of collaboration from other researchers. After the number of repeats it's had, I estimate that it's been seen by about 2 million people. 
Title Presented a range of BBC TV programmes, on general physics and earth science 
Description I'm including these because NERC gave me a no-cost extension to my fellowship specifically in order to make these possible, and I'm very grateful for that. Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey, a three-part series on BBC Two. (March 2012), co-presented with Kate Humble. Operation Iceberg, a two-part series on BBC Two (October 2012) The Transit of Venus, BBC Two (June 2012) Horizon[13] Stargazing Challenges, (BBC Two) Dara Ó Briain's Science Club, two series of 6 programmes each (BBC Two) The Secret Life of the Sun, BBC Two (July 2013) Pop! The Science of Bubbles, BBC Four, April 2013 The £10 Million Challenge, a Horizon to launch the Longitude Prize 2014 (BBC2) What's Wrong with Our Weather?, July 2014, Horizon, BBC2, co-presented with meteorologist John Hammond Super Senses: The Secret Power of Animals, 3x1hr programmes on BBC2 I also have a regular column in BBC Focus magazine and was shortlisted for columnist of the year at the 2014 PPA Awards 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact Visibility of a female scientist in a very male-dominated area, significant contribution to public understanding of these topics. 
Description The equipment set up with this fellowship has been used by a PhD student to continue these studies. She has investigated whether bubble fragmentation in the ocean changes with temperature and surfactant concentration, and has quantified these influences. These data are important for understanding how ocean bubbles contribute to gas transfer across the ocean surface.
Exploitation Route These data will be useful to people studying the bubbles produced under breaking waves, because they provide some insight into how variable this process is in different regions of the ocean. This is vital information for understanding the uptake of carbon dioxide in our oceans.
Sectors Environment

Description The findings from this paper are mostly relevant to improving weather and climate forecasts, and these details do not directly impact non-academic audiences. However, they have been discussed on many occasions during the grant-holder's extensive public engagement activities.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Other
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Public lectures on bubbles at 3 science festivals this year, and in approximately 10 other venues just in 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Lots of questions afterwards, both about marine science and bubbles. Raised awareness of ocean science and where to find out about it. Lots of requests to talk at other venues.

Frequent questions about ocean/physics careers from teenagers, lots of people told me that they went to various websites to research the topics covered further.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014
Description Set up Southampton Roadshow at the University of Southampton, provided module about my research 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The hands-on demos stimulate a lot of discussion about both the science itself and being a scientist. My module has been seen by thousands of people, and we could answer questions about bubbles, acoustic, ocean science and climate science.

Interest from school pupils in studying science beyond A-level, lots of career questions, and a better informed public on ocean issues of the day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014
Description Skype talks to schools, and in-person schools talks 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I have given frequent talks in schools, and skype interviews (for schools who are geographically distant). I also speak to schools groups coming round UCL.

Lots of discussion of scientific careers, and the A-levels needed to do them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014
Description Writing for the Guardian/Observer and Focus magazine about my research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact All these pieces stimulated lots of discussion in the comments section below and on twitter.

I always get e-mails and tweets with more questions about the topics raised, from a wide demongraphic range.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014