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Funding award will facilitate 'game-changing' advances in climate science at PML

12 January 2022

Support from the Wolfson Foundation will enable monitoring and improved understanding of air-sea gas exchange in unprecedented detail using autonomous technologies 

The SmartSound buoy and AutoNaut

Scientists at Plymouth Marine Laboratory are on the cusp of radical advancements in climate science following the announcement of three quarters of a million pounds of funding from independent grant-making charity the Wolfson Foundation.

The funding is being used to support PML’s multi-million pound ‘Advances in Air-Sea Exchange using Autonomy (ASEauto)’ project which will combine advanced instrumentation designed to study climate-relevant trace gases with a world-leading network of autonomous monitoring platforms including unmanned vessels, robotic submarines and data buoys.

The use of these remote technologies, which were launched last year as part of the PML-led SmartSound initiative (with support from the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the European Regional Development Fund), will enable the generation of unprecedented levels of data on the production and consumption of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, dimethylsulfide and ammonia in the marine environment and their exchange between the ocean and atmosphere. These compounds are important for the climate because they are either greenhouse gases or influence the production and growth of particles in the atmosphere that reflect solar radiation away from the Earth’s surface.

Harnessing the latest in marine autonomy, in addition to PML’s established observation platforms (including the Western Channel Observatory and Penlee Point Atmospheric Observatory) and world-class expertise in marine biogeochemistry and air-sea exchange, the ASEauto project is designed to radically improve current understanding and thus the accuracy of climate models. This will improve climate change projections and support the design of vital climate change mitigation and adaption strategies and measures at local, national and international levels.

The Wolfson Foundation is committed to “improving the civic health of society, mainly through education and research”. Their investment will equip the autonomous platforms with a unique set of instruments including advanced sensors and automated water sampling technology. This, combined with state-of-the-art lab-based instrumentation, will create a unique and world-leading resource for Air-Sea Exchange research and help to further PML’s 30-year legacy at the forefront of ocean/atmosphere gas exchange studies.

Professor Icarus Allen, Chief Executive of PML said: “We are delighted that the Wolfson Foundation has chosen to support the ASEauto project which will utilise the unique capabilities we have in marine autonomy here in Plymouth. Marine autonomous platforms are transforming oceanographic research by vastly increasing the frequency and coverage of observations compared with traditional sampling, and by collecting data in under-sampled environments and conditions.

"ASEauto combines autonomous platforms with chemical sensors, samplers and instruments, which will enable us to quantify the fluxes of trace gases in estuarine, coastal, shelf sea and open ocean environments. It represents a step-change in our capacity to monitor and understand the underlying processes that are critical to our planet’s climate, and indeed human health.” 

PML’s Air-Sea Exchange team has a strong track record in conducting world-leading science, pioneering new techniques, making novel observations, and generating new insights with many high impact publications on climate-relevant trace gases in the ocean. Furthermore, PML is a renowned provider of scientific advice for international policy on climate change and air pollution, including as an official observer organisation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties and as a key contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports, the preeminent scientific input to international climate negotiations.

ASEauto project lead, Professor Tom Bell, said “The ASEauto project is a game-changer as it will allow us to construct a detailed picture of the marine environment and accelerate our understanding of how different gases and pollutants affect, and are affected by, the processes taking place within it. For example, we already know that the ocean plays a critical role in the global carbon cycle, currently absorbing up to a third of carbon emissions from human activities. But we need a much more accurate measure of that uptake and improved understanding of the underlying processes in order to understand what may happen under different future emissions scenarios. We also need to understand how effective various emissions-reductions strategies, such as restoration of coastal ecosystems and management of upstream agricultural practices, are likely to be.

"ASEauto will help us gain that insight, and will also provide us with hugely valuable data on the processes that control volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which impact air quality and global climate by controlling ozone, aerosol, and cloud formation. It’s an incredibly exciting project to be a part of, as we start to fully capitalise on the opportunities provided by the advances in autonomous marine technologies.”

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation, said: “Plymouth Marine Laboratory makes a remarkable contribution to climate science and policy in the UK and internationally. By supporting this investment in cutting-edge instruments and equipment, we hope PML will be able to answer urgent questions about how the oceans are affected by greenhouse gas emissions, informing new strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

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