Explore the Decade


The University of Edinburgh and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO

United Nations / Ocean Science & Technology / Ocean Policy & Sustainable Development / Business & Industry / Donors & Foundations

By J Murray Roberts (School of GeoSciences), Sinead Collins (School of Biological Sciences), Ross Houston (Roslin Institute), Adam Stokes (School of Engineering)

The University of Edinburgh was established in 1583. It has over 40,000 students and 15,000 staff working across colleges of Arts, Humanities & Social Science, Medicine & Veterinary Medicine and Science & Engineering. The University has been at the forefront of research and innovation in a city where notable thinkers have included David Hume, the philosopher, economist and essayist; Joseph Black, the chemist behind the discovery of carbon dioxide; and James Hutton, the ‘Father of Modern Geology’. Charles Darwin began his student life at Edinburgh and Charles Wyville Thomson who led the HMS Challenger expedition (1872-76) held the University’s Chair in Natural History.

In early 2020 University researchers met to discuss how their work related to the seven Ocean Decade outcomes. We identified eleven active programmes and are pleased to say that the University is a Collaborating partner in the Ocean Decade.

This article summarises some of our Ocean Decade related work giving examples including science and engineering, food security, basin scale ecosystem research, best practice development and mentoring future leaders.

In 2020 the University of Edinburgh partnered with the St Abbs Marine Station on the North Sea coast. Situated in the heart of the UK’s oldest voluntary marine reserve, the marine station is built from completely non-ferrous materials making it the perfect place to study the effects of electromagnetic fields on marine species. As offshore marine renewable energy becomes ever more important, it’s essential we understand all the environmental implications. The St Abbs station allows researchers to closely control environmental conditions making it ideal for multiple stressor and sustainable aquaculture research.

  • Investing in ocean renewable energy technology: FloWave

Edinburgh has been active in marine energy research since the 1970s and the creation of the ‘Edinburgh duck’ device that converts wave power into electricity. Highly controlled tank testing facilities were essential for this work and today the University operates the 25 m diameter FloWave Facility. Around its circular perimeter 168 wave-making paddles can create full-spectrum multi-directional waves as well as more traditional monochromatic waves, over a test area of more than 200 square metres. Depending on the scale chosen this corresponds to full-scale seas of up to 28 m waves, currents in excess of 12 knots, and a sea-area of approximately 2 square kilometres. FloWave is used to test marine renewable energy devices by researchers and private companies.

Human activities have expanded rapidly into the deep and open ocean and governments around the world are looking to expand their ‘Blue Economies’. Faced with these pressures, alongside the implications of global change, policy makers need marine ecosystem understanding at ocean basin scale. Responding to this challenge the University of Edinburgh has coordinated two Atlantic basin-scale research projects funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. ATLAS (2016-20, €9.1M) brought its findings into the on-going UN biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction negotiations and proposed new potential Ecologically or Biologically Significant marine Areas among other policy-relevant work .iAtlantic(2019-23, €10.6M) extends the ATLAS approach with work to map key areas of the deep Atlantic, to enhance human and technical capacities and to work with diverse knowledge sources including data from marine industries and citizen scientists.

  • Genomic approaches to improving aquaculture: AquaLeap

With projections of hugely increased reliance on aquaculture to meet global food security, the need for fully sustainable mariculture has never been greater. Launched in 2019, the £1.7M AquaLeap project is an academic-industry consortium led by the Roslin Institute that aims to advance genomic tools and their application to improve selective breeding in key UK aquaculture species. The team use high-throughput DNA sequencing and genome editing approaches to understand the genetic basis of key production traits. Working with industry partners AquaLeap will develop and apply genetic markers for growth and disease resistance, with a focus on Atlantic salmon, European lobster, European flat oyster and lumpfish aquaculture. More about Roslin’s aquaculture team is available here.

Understanding marine life in a changing ocean

Having absorbed 93% of anthropogenic warming and around 25% of CO2 emissions the oceans bear the brunt of global climate change. These huge factors are changing the oceans more rapidly than at any point in Earth’s history. Ocean ecosystems are experiencing unprecedented rates of warming, acidification and deoxygenation which interact with one other and other stressors in complex, unpredictable ways. In 2016 researchers at the University of Edinburgh formed a Changing Oceans research group to study the implications for marine ecosystems and the University’s School of Biological Sciences is studying how communities of marine species, particularly rapidly-evolving microbial and algal communities, may change and adapt to future ocean conditions.

Developing plug and play tools for better experimental design: MEDDLE experimental simulator

In 2019 the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research project “Changing Ocean Biological Systems” (COBS) launched a suite of online resources, including  a best practice guide, to help researchers design statistically meaningful multiple stressor studies. The resources include the Multiple Environmental Driver Design Lab for Experiments, a simulator for multiple driver experiments. COBS also leads in-person and online workshops internationally in coordination with existing MSc and PhD programmes, summer schools and conference-affiliated training sessions.

Jellyfish-inspired robot ideal for probing sensitive ocean environments

Edinburgh engineers have created a marine robot inspired by the propulsion systems of jellyfish. The moon jellyfish Aurelia auritais one of the most efficient swimmers in nature, and the bio-inspired robot uses a simple but effective mechanism made from a rubber exterior membrane enclosing 3D-printed flexible ribs, which work together to form a propulsive bell. A small piston in thetop half of the robot taps this bell repeatedly so that it expands and springs back. This mimics a jellyfish’s swimming technique, producing jets of fluid to propel the robot through the water. When the piston operates at the correct frequency the robot can move at one body length per second matching jellyfish efficiency. The new robot is 10 to 50 times more efficient than propellor-powered underwater vehicles.

Edinburgh Ocean Leaders

Edinburgh Ocean Leaders is designed to accelerate the leadership, creativity and influence of exceptional ocean professionals working together to make a significant positive impact on the health of the World’s oceans. Our underlying ‘theory of change’ is that distributed, creative and enabled leadership is a prerequisite to achieving this urgent and transformational positive change. Please see the EOL article for more information.

These eight case studies give a snapshot of the activities at the University of Edinburgh relevant to the Ocean Decade. For more information, please see www.ed.ac.uk/oceans.

This article is part of an online series dedicated to the UN Ocean Decade. One story will be published each week that is related to initiatives, new knowledge, partnerships, or innovative solutions that are relevant to the following seven Ocean Decade outcomes. Access the special digital issue dedicated to the Ocean Decade.



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