Scientists have revealed how buoyant plastic items can travel around six metres per minute and cross an ocean following an innovative project that combined social science and computer modelling. The University, working with the Lost at Sea Project, examined how a ship’s container, lost overboard in the North Atlantic east of New York in January 2014, resulted in printer cartridges washing up across a wide range of territories, including Florida, northern Norway and the Azores. Published in the journal Environmental Pollution, the research showed that around 1,500 items were reported on social media, and the team used oceanographic modelling tools to show how they reached their final resting place.
University and royal navy collaborate on marine autonomy research
The University has entered into a strategic partnership with the Royal Navy to conduct research and advance understanding around the future potential of marine autonomy. The partnership will see academics in fields including autonomous marine vessels and maritime cyber security working closely with navy personnel on a range of innovative projects. These will include Project Hecla, established in 2018 to optimise the Navy’s ability to collect and exploit hydrographic and oceanographic information.
The University will work with the project team on ways to enhance its feeding back of vital survey information to the UK Hydrographic Office and the Royal Navy’s highly skilled HM cadre. The partnership will also look at harnessing the capabilities of the University’s unique Cyber-SHIP Lab.
The University is delighted to formalise our partnership with the Royal Navy in the crucial area of marine and maritime autonomy research and innovation. This will capitalise on our internationally leading position in this broad field, our nationally unique on-campus facilities, our partnerships in Plymouth and the wider South West in particular, and the significant demonstration and testing opportunities in Plymouth Sound.
Professor Judith Petts CBE, Vice-Chancellor.
Modelling how coasts will be impacted by storms and sea-level rise
Coastal scientists have developed a simple algorithm-based model that accurately predicts how coastlines could be affected by storms and sealevel rise and – as a result – enable communities to identify the actions they might need to take in order to adapt. The Forecasting Coastal Evolution (ForCE) model, developed by a team in the Coastal Processes Research Group, is capable of predicting both the short-term impact of violent storm or storm sequences (over days to years), as well as predicting the much longer term evolution of the coast due to forecasted rising sea levels (decades). And unlike previous simple models of its kind that attempt forecasts on similar timescales, ForCE also considers other key factors, like tidal, surge and global sea-level rise data, to assess how beaches might be impacted by predicted climate change.
Top-level coastal managers around the world have recognised a real need to assess the resilience of our coastlines in a climate of changing waves and sea level. However, until now they have not had the essential tools that are required to make this assessment. We hope that our work with the ForCE model will be a significant step towards providing this new and essential capability.
Dr Mark Davidson, Associate Professor in Coastal Processes.
Employing social science to track plastic dispersal
Cargo spillages are not common, but estimates suggest there could be several thousand containers lost at sea every year. They can cause harm to the seabed but, once ruptured, their contents can have an impact both where they are lost and – as shown in this study – much more widely.
Dr Andrew Turner, Associate Professor in Environmental Sciences.
University leads call for decade of deep-sea research
Researchers from the University have led an international team of scientists, spanning 45 institutions in 17 countries, to call for a dedicated decade of research to ensure better understanding of the deep seas. Coinciding with the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the group developed a detailed blueprint – named Challenger 150 and published across two research papers – of what they believe is needed and how it can be achieved. Challenger 150 will generate new geological, physical, biogeochemical and biological data through a global cooperative of science and innovation, including the application of new technology. These data will be used to understand how changes in the deep sea impact the wider ocean and life on the planet, which in turn will support decision-making on issues such as mining, fishing, conservation and laying fibre-optic cables.
The deep seas and seabed are increasingly being used by society, and they are seen as a potential future asset for the resources they possess. But managing these resources sustainably requires that we first understand deep-sea ecosystems and their role in our planet, its people and its atmosphere. Our vision is for a ten-year programme of science and discovery that is global in scale and targeted towards proving the science to inform decisions around deep-ocean use.
Kerry Howell, Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology and
Lead Author of the research publications.
Marine protected areas can boost fish populations by almost 400%
Protecting areas of the ocean and coastlines with ‘whole site’ Marine Protected Area (MPA) status can result in four-fold increases in the abundance and diversity of fish populations. Researchers from the University have been monitoring the impact of the Lyme Bay MPA since it was designated in 2008 – and published their findings in September, in the Journal of Applied Ecology. They found the number of different fish species inside the controlled zone is now more than four times (430%) greater than found outside the MPA’s boundaries. In terms of overall abundance, there are 370% more fish to be found within the MPA than in similar areas outside it, where bottom-towed fishing is still permitted. The following month, HRH The Princess Royal met some of the academics responsible for the study when she joined them on board RV Falcon Spirit as part of her visit to learn more about Plymouth’s seafood industry and efforts to protect the marine environment.
Globally, the implementation of MPAs has increased rapidly over the last 25 years. They are a key element of international plans to protect and preserve the ocean.
However, as things stand, only 7.9% of the world’s ocean is covered by such protection. Our ongoing work in Lyme Bay has shown the positive effects of addressing that, and in the
face of the global climate and biodiversity crises, the need to do so has never been more pressing.
Dr Emma Sheehan, Associate Professor of Marine Ecology (Research).
Marine research Plymouth
The University’s reputation for marine science research is world leading – as evidenced by the 2021 Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings and two Queen’s Anniversary Prize awards in the past decade. Now, thanks to a new strategic partnership, it has helped to ensure that the city of Plymouth has further strengthened its position as an international centre of excellence for marine research.
Joining forces with two of the other world-leading research institutions – the Marine Biological Association and Plymouth Marine Laboratory – the partnership have launched Marine Research Plymouth to promote greater collaboration on major projects and ventures. With funding and support from the Natural Environment Research Council, the new partnership will encourage joint investment in research appointments, and support the sharing of capabilities, equipment and facilities.
World-leading science that ensures the health and sustainability of marine environments is dependent on collaboration. The University collaborates across the UK and globally, and its leadership in marine science has long been recognised. I am delighted that Marine Research Plymouth builds on our immensely strong local partnerships to showcase and position Plymouth – Britain’s Ocean City – as a centre of global leadership, opportunity and impact in the marine and ocean sciences that are so vital to our planet.
Professor Judith Petts CBE,
Global microplastics research
The issue of microplastic pollution in the waterways of the world was the focus of a number of high-impact research papers. Research Fellow and National Geographic Explorer Dr Imogen Napper led one study that revealed that the Ganges River could be responsible for up to three billion microplastic particles entering the Bay of Bengal every day. Published in Environmental Pollution, this was the first investigation of microplastic abundance, characteristics and seasonal variation along the river and was based on samples collected by an international team of scientists as part of the National Geographic Society’s Sea to Source: Ganges expedition.
Dr Napper was also the lead author of another significant piece of work, published in Science of the Total Environment, that investigated whether the hauling of rope on maritime vessels could be a major source of microplastic fragments entering the water. During the first study of its kind, the team in the International Marine Litter Research Unit conducted field and laboratory tests and found that rope could release between 20 and 760 fragments per metre hauled, depending upon its age. Another study found that flakes of paint could be the second most abundant form of microplastic particles in the ocean. Dr Andrew Turner, working with colleagues in the Marine Biological Association, found that there was an average of 0.01 paint flakes per cubic metre of seawater in samples taken from the North Atlantic.
And finally, University academics played a key role in the production of the first holistic assessment of marine and land-based pollution in the southern Caribbean. Analysing samples collected in 2019 by the all-female round-the-world sailing mission led by eXXpedition, academics identified 18 different polymers in the waters. Detailed ocean modelling and an assessment of regional policies helped the team to identify some of the environmental and human factors behind their distribution. Again, the research was published in Science of the Total Environment.
Multi-million pound initiative advances the sustainable management of uk’s marine resources
The University is to lead an innovative new doctoral training project focused on the sustainable management of marine resources. The Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (SuMMeR CDT) has been supported by £2.2 million in funding from the Natural Environment Research Council and will train almost 50 interdisciplinary PhD students over the next seven years. The SuMMeR CDT includes coordinating partners Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Marine Biological Association, along with the Universities of Exeter, Bangor and Heriot-Watt, as well as many more collaborative partners. Together they will cover existing and emerging topics of local, national and global importance, from enabling biodiversity gains and delivering net zero, to enhancing coastal protection and supporting coastal communities.
As global populations continue to rise, a huge range of increasing demands are being placed on our coasts and seas. People are turning more to the ocean as a potential source of food and energy, and to support human health and wellbeing. However, there is a delicate balance to be struck so that we harness the power of the ocean without
affecting its contribution to the health of societies and the planet as a whole. That can only be achieved by looking at the issues from all angles, and the students and collaborations involved in the SuMMeR CDT will play a crucial role in driving that approach forward.
Melanie Austen, Professor of Ocean Society and Director of the SuMMeR CDT.