Carbon and Nutrient Dynamics and Fluxes over Shelf Systems

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Ocean Sciences


The large continental land masses are surrounded by extensive shallow (ca 100m depth) seas known as the 'shelf seas'. These act as the boundary between the massively perturbed terrestrial environment and the vast open ocean marine system, and have huge socio-economic importance. They are the primary regions of human marine resource exploitation, including both renewable and fossil fuel energy sources, recreation, trade and food production. Although comprising only about 5% of the global ocean surface area, the shelf seas provide 90% of the global fish catches which form an important source of food to much of the global population. They also play an important role in the ecosystem services provided by the oceans as a whole, in particular in storing carbon away from the atmosphere.

Physical and biochemical processes in shelf seas influence the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and the subsequent storage of carbon in the deep ocean. Biological growth draws carbon out of the water, which is then replaced by carbon in CO2 from the atmosphere. In the shelf seas this growth is supported by terrestrial and open ocean sources of nutrients, implying intimate roles for both the terrestrial biosphere and the open ocean environment in regulating shelf sea climate services. The oceans can also be a major source or sink for other greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide (N2O), with the shallow shelf seas thought to play a key role.

The spatial extent of the submerged continental shelves varies greatly. The NW European shelf sea is one of the largest and hence is likely to play a significant role in marine biogeochemical cycling, alongside providing a useful model for other systems However, even in this relatively well studied region, we lack a good understanding of the principal controls on the cycling of carbon and the major nutrient elements, nitrogen, phosphorous and silicon. Consequently it is also difficult to predict how the cycling of these elements and hence the carbon removal they support may be altered by ongoing and potential future global change. Our proposal aims to address these uncertainties through a comprehensive study of the cycling of the major nutrients and carbon throughout the water column over the NW European shelf sea system.

Through close collaboration with a range of partners, we will undertake a year-long observation programme of the whole NW European continental shelf. We will measure the seawater concentrations of the major forms of carbon and nutrients. Combining these with physical water transports and measured transfer of gases (specifically CO2 and N2O) between the air and sea surface, we will quantify the major fluxes of nutrients and carbon between the shelf sea and both the adjacent deep ocean and atmosphere. This will definitively establish the role of this shelf system in the global carbon and nutrient cycles.

We will also undertake 4 dedicated research cruises focused on understanding the seasonal cycle of biological and chemical processing of the different forms of the nutrients and carbon. We will measure the rates at which both the photosynthetic and consumer plankton incorporate nutrients and carbon into their cellular material, and subsequently how the combined activity of this biological/chemical system influences the cycling of the major elements. This will allow us to understand the ways in which the role of the shelf system in global cycles is maintained.

The combined work delivered by both this proposal and the other programme workpackages will allow us to identify aspects of the NW European shelf system which may be susceptible to ongoing or future environmental changes. Such knowledge will provide both enhanced scientific understanding and improved predictive tools for policy makers and other stakeholders.

Planned Impact

Our work is directly relevant to Defra, the Marine Management Organisation and Marine Scotland requirements to support the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Water Framework Directive and the Marine and Climate Acts. The whole-shelf survey data and detailed process studies will be valuable additions to the knowledge of the state of the UK shelf seas, providing underpinning information about nutrients together with the distribution, functioning and diversity, of the planktonic ecosystem. Our new information will assist further development of indicators and targets for eutrophication and pelagic biodiversity required to implement the MSFD. It will also allow refinement of specific monitoring programmes required for the MSFD, the Water Framework Directive and the OSPAR Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme. A combination of the observations and analysis carried out by us, and the supporting synthesis in the modelling work package, will provide targeted information to Marine Scotland, Cefas and Defra for use in delivering aspects of the Marine Act (Scotland) and the Climate Act (UK). New strategies for monitoring shelf regions, e.g. gliders, are of interest to the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS) through, for example, the UK Integrated Marine Observing Network (UK IMON) initiative. Our mooring in the central Celtic Sea will provide a new data stream to the European Marine Ecosystem Observatory (EMECO). Defra, Marine Scotland and the MMO rely on Cefas, Marine Scotland Science and UKMMAS (BODC and Medin) for integrated evidence. We will supply all quality-controlled data to BODC, and real-time data streams directly to EMECO, and the Met Office. Representatives from all agencies will be supported to attend project meetings and the final science meeting. We have also set aside a budegt for ad hoc briefings to Defra and MMO (requested as useful by Defra).

Operational modellers of shelf seas at the UK Met Office have a direct interest in real-time data and in new process-focused data in shelf seas. Our data will help Met Office operational modelling (for data assimilation) and model validation (e.g. time series of vertical turbulent mixing, new CTD and towed vehicle transects, and current data). Agencies with responsibilities for fisheries (e.g. Cefas, AFBI) have a clear interest in our nutrient and plankton community data , in the context of how shelf sea primary production supports fish stocks. Cefas is a collaborator on our project. Representatives from AFBI and the Met Office will be supported to attend project meetings and the final science meeting. The WWF-led Celtic Seas Partnership also has interests in methods and data that could be applicable to ecosystem-based management of shelf seas, particularly in waters to the west of the UK; they will be engaged through the Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry programme Knowledge Exchange activities, providing an important route into other relevant stakeholder groups and NGOs.

There is a general public interest in our shelf seas as a source of food and energy that is susceptible to climate change. This includes interest from schools that often require societally-relevant novel questions to drive the science curriculum. A project website will be supported by the NOC Communications and Public Engagement Office, along with regular press releases. Many of our PIs have experience in interacting with local and national press. We will use our work to provide a demonstration of a cost-effective method of engaging with school children that has quantifiable results in attracting pupils towards STEM subjects at university.


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Description A benchtop macro photography imaging device for taking pictures of marine snow at sea was developed and successfully tested on a summer research cruise.

A model is currently being developed to automate the image analysis. It is in the training stage at the moment with 82% accuracy at detecting certain particles (fecal pellets, marine snow, plastic debris, etc). We are attempting to provide additional training images to increase the accuracy.

Images do show that there is a lot of micro-plastic pollution appearing in the marine snow catcher traps. These results are currently being quantified.
Exploitation Route Macro imaging device of potential use to other researchers. Currently developing software to automate the images to have deliverables and publications in late 2019 or 2020. Image analysis model will be used for other studies.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Other

Description Delays in the cruise schedule due to technical problems with the research vessel have stalled most findings. I have developed a benchtop imaging device which was successfully tested at sea over the summer. There are also people interested in automating it in the future. Data analysis has been further delayed due to imaging errors. Co-investigator on maternity leave and therefore delayed with many outputs. Co-investigator also not on full-time contract and only able to work on analysis 4 hrs per week. In addition, an automated imaging system is being developed using a deep learning algorithm. The data gathered by this team is being used to calibrate it.
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Other
Title Marine Snow Imaging Device 
Description A device for photographing high quality digital images of marine snow collected from the Marine Snow Catcher was developed to use onboard the research vessel. The device holds a digital camera with macro lens directly above the sample plate and allows the camera to move in the x,y, and z positions in order to take pictures that can later be stitched together and analysed for size, color, and carbon estimations. This device was successfully tested at sea over the summer. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact No notable impacts yet. Device currently being used at sea. 
Title Python Image Analysis 
Description I am currently learning to code in Python to develop an automated system for the analysis of images of marine snow and zooplankton faecal pellets collected by the marine snow catcher device. This will be to estimate carbon contributions. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact none yet 
Title Images from MSC Imager 
Description I will soon be submitting a library of images produced from the Marine Snow Catcher Imaging Device. Unfortunately there were errors in the image capture procedure so the process is taking longer than expected. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Other researchers within this project have requested information obtained from the images. 
Description Collaboration with computer scientist 
Organisation Elidir Health Ltd.
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Wrote specification for a particle image analysis system. Helping collaborator with calibration and providing image data for learning.
Collaborator Contribution Team member of Elidir Health is developing the deep learning application for the automated image analysis system.
Impact Application still in development. This collaboration is with a computer scientist and a marine scientist and therefore multidisciplinary.
Start Year 2017
Title Image Analyser 
Description An application is currently in development to make image analysis quicker and easier. The deep learning algorithm is in the learning stage at the moment. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Software still in development phase but progressing. 
Description BBC Science Cafe 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was featured on an episode of BBC Radio Wales Science Cafe in June 2015. Myself, and my MSc student were interviewed regarding my current research. One section was about my jellyfish research and another section was about my zooplankton research, of which I discussed some of what I am doing on this project. I was invited back again in December to be on a discussion panel for the year-in-review of science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015