The COP26 summit in November 2021 will be a landmark occasion to drive action and consolidate international commitments on climate change. With many Commonwealth Scholars playing an integral role in climate research and initiatives, this year is sure to be a momentous time for those working under Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action.

We spoke to Rajneesh Kumar, 2020 Commonwealth Scholar from India studying MSc Oceanography at University of Southampton, about what motivated him to focus on climate action and how he hopes to make an impact through his research.

The study of our oceans and marine ecosystems is crucial to understanding climate change because these natural environments play a fundamental role in regulating the climate and recycling nutrients. As a mathematician, I have long been interested in the way that mathematical modelling can be applied to real world situations to improve our understanding of large-scale occurrences such as climate change.

Full length shot of Rajneesh Kumar next to sign reading 'University of Southampton'

Rajneesh Kumar at the National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton

After completing a study of differential equations as part of my Master’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, I was inspired to learn more about how mathematics could be applied to climate modelling and to understand the physical aspects of climate science. Studying the MSc Oceanography course at the University of Southampton has been instrumental in my ambition of constructing accurate climate models to avert future disasters and ensure sustainable development for communities in India.

The impact of climate change on extreme weather events such as droughts, cyclones, and flooding is already well understood, but being able to predict when and where these weather events will take place has become increasingly important to people across the world whose lives and livelihoods are vulnerable to fluctuations in climate stability.

Having grown up in Bihar in eastern India, I am all too aware of the risks that flooding in particular has on the economic wellbeing of farmers, like my father. As with many people in this region of India, my father is dependent on cultivating his land for subsistence. So, when flooding affects agricultural productivity and yields on a large scale, it is not just individual farmers who suffer, but Indian society as a whole because the economic knock-on effects of reduced yields dampens national GDP.

By improving climate modelling, my ambition is to mitigate the detrimental impacts of climate change brought about by natural hazards in India where currently 68% of land mass is prone to drought, 12% to floods and 8% to cyclones. If we can accurately predict the future climate model for India, we can reduce these percentages and improve the living standards of people who live and work in areas that are most affected by natural hazards. In this way, we can also improve the economic prospects of India more generally.

All physical phenomena can be represented by differential equations, which form the basis of predictions in a climate model. However, climate models are difficult to construct because they use non-linear differential equations which have no known exact solution and therefore rely on approximation to solve them. The complexity of factors involved in calculating climate predictions and ensuring that all known parameters are incorporated into the model places a degree of risk on the outcomes of the process. To prevent errors, it is important to scrutinise all of the different parameters, even the most insignificant seeming, to ensure the accuracy of the modelling process and its predictions.

My scholarship at the University of Southampton has improved my knowledge and skills in marine science and oceanography to help me achieve my aim of developing better climate models for predicting natural hazards. With support from fantastic lecturers and experience of fieldwork and practical exercises at the University of Southampton, I have been improving my research capabilities in the area of oceanography and climate science this year. I hope that I can build on my research progress by completing a PhD after my scholarship, which will enable me to contribute to future climate models and continue the development of research-led climate science.

I am committed and motivated to helping people in India and across the world tackle the effects of climate change and reduce the impact of natural hazards.