Atlantic Ocean

Plymouth scientists play key role in understanding future threats to the Atlantic


Plymouth’s world-leading ocean scientists will play a key role in an international project that aims to map and assess the current and future risks posed across the Atlantic Ocean.

Funded by an €11.5million grant from the European Union's Horizon 2020 programme, Mission Atlantic will be the first initiative to develop and systematically apply Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEAs) at the Atlantic basin scale.

The unique approach will engage scientists, stakeholders and resource managers, integrating all components of the ecosystem – including climate change, natural hazards and human activities – into the decision-making process.

In this way, managers and policy makers can use scientific evidence to balance the need for environmental protection with secure, sustainable development, thereby ensuring a positive future for the Atlantic Ocean and its peoples.

The project comprises more than 30 partners from both sides of the Atlantic, including PML, the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and the University of Plymouth.

Emphasising the city’s status among the world’s foremost locations for ocean science, the three city bodies will receive more than €1million and use existing and new technology to monitor and assess pelagic and seafloor habitats.

Dr Jorn Bruggeman, Senior Marine Ecosystem Modeller at PML, said: “We are delighted to be part of this Horizon 2020 project and to work with partners from four continents on improving our understanding of the Atlantic Ocean. PML will lead the work package titled ‘Dynamics of ecosystem state and resources’, which will deliver model projections of the future state of the Atlantic at unprecedented physical and biological detail.

"This will enable stakeholders from all across the Atlantic to explore the potential impacts of climate change and human pressures on the marine ecosystem, and to prepare for the future."

The MBA will be involved in mapping and assessing the present and future status of Atlantic marine ecosystems under multiple stressors such as climate change and over-fishing. Scientists at the MBA will be using data collected by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey to map habitat changes seen over the last 60 years in response to climate warming.

Professor Martin Edwards, from the MBA, said: “The CPR Survey programme is based in Plymouth and has collected over 60 years of plankton data in the North Atlantic and Arctic. The MBA is pleased to be part of this collaborative project which shows the importance of the CPR time series in better understanding marine ecosystem change in the Atlantic resulting from human pressures such as climate change.”

The University of Plymouth is involved in mapping the distribution of deep-sea bed habitats including vulnerable marine ecosystems such as cold water coral reefs and deep-sea sponge fields. They will also test the application of artificial intelligence and computer vision in speeding up the analysis of hundreds of hours of video and image data taken from the deep-sea in order to provide new data to support their mapping work.

Kerry Howell, Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology at the University, said: “The maps we produce will feed into Integrated Ecosystem Assessments of different parts of the Atlantic Ocean. It draws on the University’s research strengths in sustainable ocean management and marine conservation, and we are looking forward to working with our partners in Plymouth and the wider Atlantic community.”

Using high-resolution ocean models, artificial neural networks, risk assessment methods and advanced statistical approaches, Mission Atlantic will accurately assess pressures imposed on Atlantic marine ecosystems, identifying the parts most at risk from natural hazards and the consequences of human activities. 

The team will combine existing data from global ocean monitoring programmes with new observations collected using advanced marine robots and acoustic sensors. A truly multidisciplinary approach, these tools will be used to explore plankton and fish distribution in unknown waters, including sub-Arctic and Tropical regions in the Atlantic Ocean.

Patrizio Mariani, Mission Atlantic Project Coordinator, said: “In an era of rapid transformations affecting our societies and our lives, we are asked to provide the scientific knowledge necessary to face future challenges and to guarantee a sustainable future for the next generations. By studying the complex Atlantic Ocean ecosystems, Mission Atlantic will contribute to a better and more sustainable future for life on Earth.”

Mission Atlantic will also contribute to the commitments outlined in the Belém Statement on Atlantic Ocean Research and Innovation Cooperation between the European Union, Brazil and South Africa, and as part of the UN Decade of Ocean Science (2021-2030), supporting society in achieving a sustainable ocean.

Michael St. John, Mission Atlantic Policy lead and Belém Panel Chair, said: “In support of the Belém statement, Mission Atlantic will be a catalyst in linking research activities in the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean with those in the North Atlantic.  It will identify and strengthen synergies between the Atlantic Research Agenda, AIR Centre; Joint Programming Initiatives, as well as the Strategic Forum for International Science and Technology Cooperation, the European Union's Earth Observation and Monitoring programme - Copernicus, and the Benguela Current Commission.

“Through its activities, Mission Atlantic will optimise the use and sharing of research infrastructures and, via the development of state-of-the-art data methodologies, enhance access to and management of data on the stressors and services provided by Atlantic ecosystems. Finally, and critically, the project will provide the knowledge and tools necessary to sustainably manage Atlantic ecosystem services as they are impacted upon by climate change and human activities.”

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