Evelyn Alexander, postgraduate researcher, CDT SuMMeR: Cohort 1

Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (CDT SuMMeR)

Postgraduate researcher: Evelyn Alexander

Project: CDTS121: Offshore wind farms effects on ocean fronts and seabirds 

Hosting Institute: Heriot-Watt University
Associate Partners: RPS Group
<p>Evelyn Alexander, CDT summer<br></p>


Originally qualifying as a vet, I later spent several years working in financial crime research and technology, with a sideline in BTO surveys and conservation volunteering. I filled my lockdown time with an online Animal Behaviour module from the University of Oxford and followed it up by leaving my job and taking the University of St Andrews MSc in Animal Behaviour. There, I was inspired by the potential of biologging studies to assess ecosystem impacts. 

Research interests

I’m interested in behavioural flexibility as a result of environmental factors. My MSc research looked at how birds respond to temperature when selecting materials for their nests, and I’m excited to continue with a similar theme to look at how ocean fronts affect seabird foraging success. Biologgers are tiny devices that, when temporarily attached to animals, can collect information such as GPS location, speed, and dive depth. They allow us to collect data without researcher presence influencing the behaviours observed. I’ll be using them to see how gannets interact with ocean fronts in the presence and absence of wind farms. 

PhD research: Offshore wind farm effects on ocean fronts and seabirds

Ocean fronts (physical interfaces between bodies of water made up of steep gradients in one or more properties of the water, such as temperature or salinity) are known to be key features of marine ecology, used for foraging and migration by a variety of marine vertebrates including seabirds and marine mammals. Changes to front formation as a result of windfarm-induced turbulence may therefore affect seabird foraging. The UK is home to internationally important seabird colonies, including the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets, which breed at the Bass Rock, off the Scottish east coast. Offshore wind is an important part of the UK’s net zero ambitions, and has a role in improving domestic energy security, but planning consent can be difficult to obtain due to a lack of evidence for the developments’ effects on ecosystems. Previous work into the effects on seabirds have focused on collision risk and the creation of barrier effects, but there has been limited work investigating how wind farm development may affect foraging, and by extension, populations. This project aims to understand the impacts of offshore wind farms on ocean front formation and persistence, using composite front mapping. Adding in gannet GPS tracks and video data will allow me next to assess how ocean fronts affect foraging success. Finally, I will compare changes to gannet behaviour before and after windfarm construction.

Why I applied for the CDT SuMMeR

Being able to see the impacts of my work is highly motivating to me, and therefore working in a field with tangible outcomes is important to me. Growing up in North Berwick I was fascinated by the gannets that come to breed on the Bass Rock, and the chance to use my interest in behaviour to help address a social need for offshore wind was impossible to pass up. The UK already is one of the most biodiversity-depleted countries in the world, so these developments shouldn’t come at the expense of wildlife.