School of tropical fish swimming near a coral reef

Stemming the tide of microplastics and marine litter

For nearly two decades, the University has been at the forefront of research into microplastics and marine litter. Led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS – a scientist once described as the “Godfather of microplastics” – the International Marine Litter Research Group has been pioneering in its work to identify the issue, reveal its true global scale, and influence policy in key areas to tackle it.
A four-star-rated submission in the 2014 REF, this legacy of policy impact and public and industry engagement is the focus of this latest world-leading case study. From providing evidence to support government legislation that prohibited the use of microbeads in wash-off cosmetics, to publishing research in high-impact journals on washing machines, car tyres and plastic shopping bags, the work of the IMLR has become the epitome of impact-led, socially engaged research. 
It was for this work that in 2019, the University was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, the second it had received in just eight years in respect of its marine and maritime excellence. 

Pioneering a ‘whole site management approach’ to marine conservation

Understanding your terrain and the natural forces that define it is a key aspect of good scientific research. Ecologists in the Marine Institute have taken that principle to new levels, effectively ‘embedding’ their work in the environmental and socioeconomic landscape of Lyme Bay, in Dorset. Through their continuous monitoring of the UK’s first Marine Protected Area, they have chronicled and documented the transformation of the ecosystem over more than a decade, while at the same time, engaged with the fishing community to an unprecedented degree, thus ensuring all parties – even those who might not support restrictions – are included in a stewardship of the sea. 
Led by experts such as Dr Emma Sheehan and Dr Sian Rees, the team has been working with local fishers and community groups along the Dorset and Devon coastline to conduct interdisciplinary research to determine how conservation measures impact the reefs, local marine life, and the communities who depend on the area for their livelihoods. Their work has revealed how a ‘whole site management’ approach has increased functional reef habitat, built resilience and integrity against extreme climatic events, and increased the abundance and diversity of species of conservation and commercial importance.
As a result, the practice of reef management in the UK has been fundamentally influenced, with Plymouth’s recommendations featuring in the UK government’s 25-year Environment Plan.

Offshore and marine renewable energy

The development of new green energy sources, such as Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE), is seen as fundamental to the UK strategy to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Encapsulating wind, wave and tidal energy, ORE, has seen rapid progress in recent years – but all are at very different levels of technological development. Offshore wind is relatively mature and highly commercialised, but floating offshore wind, wave and tidal stream are all at or approaching, demonstration stage.
This is where the University’s COAST (Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport) Laboratory has made a world-class contribution. The REF case study explores some of the way this remarkable facility within the Marine Building has been helping clients and researchers to understand the performance of new concepts at a design stage in ORE, and to research the impact of extreme conditions and wave loads on ORE devices before they are optimised and prepared for more risky and expensive sea trials. 
More than 40 industry partners have worked on 70 projects with the COAST Lab – and this collaborative track record is one of the reasons why Professor Deborah Greaves OBE, Head of the School of Engineering, has been leading the £9 million Supergen ORE Hub, which is working to provide research leadership to the sector. 

Improving beach safety to save lives

Rip currents are responsible for the tragic drownings of hundreds of people every year – with thousands more requiring urgent rescue after being put into difficulty. But the natural processes that drive the sudden manifestation of rip currents have perplexed scientists for decades.
That’s where the work of a team of coastal processes experts in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences has made such a huge impact to beach safety. Led by Professor Gerd Masselink, the team initially embarked on a three-year NERC-funded partnership where they measured rip currents in two six-week field experiments. They identified that rip currents effectively ‘switch on and off’ under different tide and wave conditions and that they were able to determine the times and conditions that would produce the greatest risk to bathers.
This has been taken forward through the development of a rip current forecast, which is received by lifeguard managers around the UK and New Zealand. The team’s work has also informed training materials, and the risk assessments undertaken by the RNLI when it comes to deciding which beaches need staffing – and when. The result, rightly recognised by the REF, is greater public knowledge of rip currents, safer beaches and fewer tragedies. 

Reducing the carbon cost of transport through smart ticketing

Transport is a major contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving anthropogenic climate change on our planet. As a sector, it is among the very few whose carbon footprint is increasing despite the increased public awareness. 
Technological solutions, such as electric vehicles, are regarded as one way of tackling the issue. But so too is behavioural change, like encouraging people to get out of their cars and use shared forms of transport. And one of the ways that is being done – thanks to sustainable travel experts in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences – is through the introduction of smart cards for use on public transport.
Professor Jon Shaw and Dr Andrew Seedhouse have been working with regional and national companies and the Department for Transport to create the country’s first smart ticketing system. They have provided procurement frameworks and back office technology, to companies and authorities to enable them to obtain the infrastructure required to roll out smart cards to their customers.  For those passengers, the greater ease and speed with which they can get on the bus is a transformational one in making it a more desirable form of transport. The result is faster journey times, reduced emissions, and more cost-effective processes – benefitting businesses, people – and the planet. 

Addressing agricultural impacts on river quality

The UK’s natural water quality is failing to reach ‘good status’ under the European Water Framework Directive. The causes of this pollution are various – both specific and more diffuse – but being able to locate and identify the sources of this pollution is fundamental to tackling the problem.
This is where the work led by Sean Comber, Professor of Environmental Chemistry, has generated such a huge impact. With funding from the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the water industry, Sean and his team devised a source apportionment process (a tool called SAGIS) that could show where a chemical in the environment was coming from to within a 1km grid. This has made it possible to distinguish whether pollution incidents have originated from point sources from industry and sewage works effluents, or diffuse sources such as agriculture or abandoned mines.
Through the generation of maps, the team has also created a powerful tool to engage stakeholders with the issue, which is helping to inform funding decisions on how to mitigate the issue – especially the four billion pounds worth of investment committed by water companies between 2020 and 2025. And it is also informing agricultural decisions and enabling government to evaluate the cost-benefit of supporting farmers with improving their infrastructure. 

Assessing the impact of global climate change on biodiversity

In the face of global climate change, how does science begin to understand its impacts on a planetary level? When so many changes are observed at a local or regional level, how do we begin to assess the degree to which human-driven climate change has itself influenced long-term changes in both natural and managed systems, and to species and continents? These are the fundamental questions that have shaped the work of Professor Camille Parmesan and colleagues in Biological Sciences.

Their research has shown that a global-scale assessment is possible only through meta-analyses of many species distributed across different continents and oceans. This has resulted in the development of a new approach, one that uses inductive reasoning – drawing general principles from a body of observations based on multiple, independent lines of evidence. Using this approach, they’ve shown that wild species have been impacted to a much greater degree than previously thought, and that marine systems have had a stronger response than terrestrial ones. They have also concluded that these biological changes have had a negative impact on human health and food security.

Their research has provided key evidence for determination of a 2°C limit for "dangerous" climate change in the Copenhagen Accord (2009) and again for the Paris Accords (2015) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Research by Parmesan and others has also formed the evidence basis for multiple legal proceedings against the United States Government, at least one of which is destined for the U.S. Supreme Court and has the power to change Federal laws on greenhouse gas emissions.

Our REF outcomes