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Science Topic


Plankton support the majority of marine ecosystems and the human communities that depend on these ecosystems. Through primary production, phytoplankton fix carbon to provide food, and generate oxygen, for higher trophic levels. Plankton both affect our climate and are affected by it. Understanding the dynamics of planktonic communities, and the challenges they face is critical to maintaining the health and well-being of life on our planet.

We combine in-situ observations, satellite remote sensing, controlled experiments and complex computer models to explore the diversity and productivity of planktonic communities, in order to understand how these communities are structured and sustained, appreciate the goods and services they provide and predict the consequences of human impacts, including climate change.

Specifically, we track the way in which the planktonic biomass generated by primary and secondary production fuels marine foodwebs and ultimately underpin higher trophic level biodiversity, including the fish and shellfish harvested and consumed by millions of humans.

At PML we host the Western Channel Observatory which boasts over 30 years of weekly phytoplankton and zooplankton observations. We use these globally important time series to investigate the critical role plankton play in controlling the World’s climate and help mitigate the rise of atmospheric CO2 and the impacts of climate change by fixing and sequestering carbon to the deep ocean.

The annual exploration of the Atlantic Ocean from 50°N to 50°S along the Atlantic Meridional Transect allows us to scale up our local observations to understand climate change impacts at an ocean basin scale. In the Southern Ocean we use time series data to explore the impacts of climate change on Krill, a small crustacean that underpins important Antarctic ecosystems and fisheries.

Using a combination of traditional and cutting-edge new technology, such as satellite observations, automated image recognition and eDNA, we also identify and quantify planktonic species that have a detrimental effect on other marine organisms and on humans. By producing toxins or reducing oxygen levels in seawater, these plankton can occur in large numbers forming Harmful Algal Blooms, known as HABs.

We engage in international networks, such as ICES and OSPAR, to translate our plankton knowledge and expertise into the information and indicators that are needed by stakeholders and policy makers. We use high level international events, such as UNFCCC COP, to provide the environmental evidence needed to support global agreements.


  • Flow cytometry
  • FlowCAM
  • eDNA
  • Satellite remote sensing
  • Biogases
  • Modelling

Selected publications

Atkinson, A; Hill, SL; Pakhomov, EA; Siegel, V; Reiss, CS; Loeb, VJ; Steinberg, DK; Schmidt, K; Tarling, GA; Gerrish, L; Sailley, SF; 2019. Krill (Euphausia superba) distribution contracts southward during rapid regional warming. Nature Climate Change.

Bedford, J; Ostle, C; Johns, DG; Atkinson, A; Best, M; Bresnan, E; et al. 2020. Lifeform indicators reveal large-scale shifts in plankton across the North-West European shelf. Global Change Biology.

Edwards, M; Atkinson, A; Bresnan, E; Helaouet, P; McQuatters-Gollup, A; Ostle, C; Pitois, S; Widdicombe, C; 2020. Plankton, jellyfish and climate in the North-East Atlantic. MCCIP Science Review.

Groom, S; Sathyendranath, S; Ban, Y; Bernard, S; Brewin, R; Brotas, V; Brockmann, C; Chauhan, P; Choi, J-K; Chuprin, A; Ciavatta, S; Cipollini, P; Donlon, C; Franz, B; He, X; Hirata, T; Jackson, T; Kampel, M; Krasemann, H; Lavender, S; Pardo-Martinez, S; Mélin, F; Platt, T; Santoleri, R; Skakala, J; Schaeffer, B; Smith, M; Steinmetz, F; Valente, A; Wang, M; 2019. Satellite Ocean Colour: Current Status and Future Perspective. Frontiers in Marine Science.

Widdicombe, CE; Eloire, D; Harbour, D; Harris, RP; Somerfield, PJ; 2010. Long-term phytoplankton community dynamics in the Western English Channel. Journal of Plankton Research

People who work in this area of research

Dr Angus Atkinson

Marine Ecologist
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Amanda Beesley

Zooplankton analyst
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Dr James Clark

Marine Ecosystem Modeller
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Dr Matthew Cole

Senior Marine Ecologist and Ecotoxicologist
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Elaine Fileman

Plankton Ecologist
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Professor Kevin Flynn

Marine Plankton Ecologist
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Professor Steve Groom

Head of Science - Earth Observation
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Dr Andrey Kurekin

Coastal Ocean Colour scientist
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Professor Pennie Lindeque

Head of Science: Marine Ecology and Biodiversity
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Andrea McEvoy

Benthic Ecologist
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Dr Peter Miller

Marine Earth Observation Scientist
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Dr Helen Parry

Molecular Biologist and Physiologist
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Dr Sevrine Sailley

Ecosystem modeller
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Dr Shubha Sathyendranath

Merit Remote Sensing Scientist
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Dr Tim Smyth

Head of Science - Marine Biogeochemistry and Observations
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Dr Paul J. Somerfield

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Dr Karen Tait

Microbial Ecologist
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Dr Glen Tarran

Marine microbial ecologist
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Dr Gavin H Tilstone

Bio-optical oceanographer
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Claire Widdicombe

Plankton Ecologist
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