Coastal and marine ecosystems

The School of Ocean Sciences has a strong emphasis on ecosystems research, which can be broadly divided into process based research, and research that is minded at conserving, restoring and managing ecosystems. Examples of these themes are illustrated below for some of the broad sweep of marine systems that we work on. The geographical, climatic and intertidal to subtidal breadth of ecosystems we study illustrate the significant contributions that Ocean Sciences personnel are making to cutting-edge marine research.

A recent measure of the impact of our ecosystems research is that two Ocean Sciences involved projects ('Essential marine ecosystems', mangroves; 'Conserving marine environments', coral reefs) reached the very top of the top-20 list among nearly 3,000 research impact cases submitted by UK Universities to the 7-yearly Research Excellence Framework in 2014 (REF ). The REF is the foremost governmental measure of academic research quality in the UK.

1. Tropical coral reefs.

Warm water coral reefs cover just 0.89% of the ocean, but contain 0.5 to 3 million species, including 25% of all fish species. Reef productivity, of 2-6 g C m-2 d-1, is several orders of magnitude greater than clear and nutrient poor waters in which they found. Millions of people depend on reefs for food, building materials, coastal protection and tourism, at a global value up to 172 billion American dollars per year. We study fundamental coral reef ecology and biology, as well as the effects of overfishing, coastal development, nutrient discharge and the introduction of invasive species on reef processes. Bio-physical research includes quantifying relationships between the structures of reef trophic groups (microbes, algae, corals, fish) and surrounding environmental forcing at various spatial scales. We also examine how past, present, and future climate conditions alter coral reef ecosystem structure and function. For instance we study human and natural drivers of disease prevalence on reefs and characterise the diseases with the use of histopathology (Williams).

Our applied research is aimed at understanding the responses of coral reefs and reef organisms to impacts and designing conservation initiatives, such as large scale protectorates of the Chagos Archipelago and national integrated coastal management strategies for UK Overseas territories in the Cayman islands (Turner). This work has set conservation priorities for endangered corals and assessed the resilience potential of coral reefs to environmental change.

2. Coastal wetlands: mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass beds.

Ocean Sciences has significant and long-standing research activities on tropical and temperate coastal wetlands. Our research on mangroves and seagrasses have contributed to changing the perception of coastal wetlands as major areas for 'blue carbon' storage. Coastal wetlands store the majority of carbon underground, to a far greater extent and for far longer than terrestrial counterpart ecosystems; Ocean Sciences were at the forefront of demonstrating these patterns (Kennedy).

We have made significant contributions to understanding the importance of biodiversity to the functioning of coastal wetlands. For instance, through long-term experiments we showed that planting biodiverse mangroves, something that is still not practiced in restoration projects, significantly enhances key ecosystem processes and services, including carbon sequestration and habitat provisioning for biodiversity (Skov). Measures of esteem emerging from our coastal wetland research include contributing to recent IPCC reports and that Ocean Sciences staff chairs the seagrass component of the IUCN's Blue Carbon Working Group. Research outputs generated with partners in the UK and Kenya was instrumental to forming the 'Mikoko Pamoja' community project, the world’s first 'Payment for Ecosystem Services' project to trade carbon credits accruing from protecting a coastal ecosystem: mangroves – this research reached the very top of the top 20 research impact cases in the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework ('Essential Ecosystems').

In the Middle East we examine how mangroves, which normally flourish in tropical areas with high rainfall and runoff, exist in arid countries (Kennedy, LeVay). Addressing such questions require multidisciplinary, biogeochemical, ecological and bio-physical research expertise, all of which is present at the School of Ocean Sciences. Our bio-physical research expertise is also addressing a new push to understand the mechanisms behind ecological resilience and ecosystem regime shifts. We tackle these frontier subjects in salt marshes and coral reefs. Thus, marshes are important for coastal protection and we recently demonstrated that erosion protection by marshes is linked to the diversity of marsh plants: higher diversity creates more complex root nets, and thus more holistic binding of marine sediments. Using hydrological flumes, remote sensing tools, field manipulative experiments and mathematical modelling we are taking this research on to forecasting regime shifts and making predictions of ecosystem vulnerability to climate change, thereby informing coastal management on the future persistence of natural ecosystem services, such as coastal flood protection.

3. Continental Shelf.

The continental shelf is the focus of 90% of world fisheries and its study is crucial to sustainable food production for an ever-growing global population. We focus our studies on understanding the diversity of shelf habitats and their associated organisms. The seabed can vary dramatically in diversity over short spatial scales, due to the shifts in the nature of benthic environments, for instance from a low-diversity sandy plain to a high-diversity boulder field. The physical marine biological research groups of Ocean Sciences has shown that the seabed in shallow seas is strongly influenced by rivers and by past glacial events that form the geological structure of the seabed (Van Landeghem). The stability and diversity of shelf communities are highly variable and their response to human activities reflects the adaptive qualities of the organisms that live in each habitat (Jenkins, Kaiser). Some areas of the continental shelf are resilient to human impacts, whereas others are extremely sensitive. Our work on continental shelf processes help provide important advise to managers of the marine environment. The team is making particularly important contributions to minimising the negative impact of human activities, such as fisheries activities, for sustainable resource use and the achievement of biodiversity conservation goals (Kaiser, Hiddink).

4. Polar Regions

Ocean Sciences in Bangor University has helped leading international research efforts into the ecology and biogeochemistry of sea ice since the mid 1990s (Kennedy, Thomas). Our engagements have involved work on Southern and Arctic Ocean sea ice, as well as ice-covered waters of the Baltic Sea. Most of our work has been from research ships, although we have conducted remote field campaigns, camping on the ice together with colleagues from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven. Bangor has led four international campaigns in large ice tank facilities in Hamburg to investigate biological and chemical changes that take place when sea ice first forms. Much of this work seek to inform the dynamics of global biogeochemical cycles that have implications to global nutrient cycles and the regulation of our climate. Our biological work to date has largely been focused on investigating the contributions of bacteria and unicellular algae to polar systems, but we have also worked on the effects of sea ice on copepods and other small zooplankton. The biogeochemical work is complemented by Ocean Science research on the physical and geological processes that affect polar ecosystems, such as the vertical mixing of ocean water along the Arctic Ocean shelf, and the dynamics of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (see High Latitude Physical Oceanography pages).