Ocean physics and ecology: can robots disentangle the mix?

PLEASE NOTE:  Application deadline date 08 Jan 2024.  Applications are no longer being accepted for this project


Project Overview 

Marine phytoplankton are key players in the global carbon cycle, responsible for half of Earth’s primary production. This project will use underwater robots to evaluate small-scale physical processes in the upper ocean, its effects on phytoplankton growth and assess the importance of including these processes in oceanic carbon models.

Project Description 

Upper ocean mesoscale (eddies) and submesoscale processes (fronts) play an important role along with atmospheric forcing in regulating the availability of light and nutrients and, therefore, phytoplankton growth. They influence the vertical exchange between the water layers, affecting the light fields and nutrient supply to the phytoplankton community at small spatial (metres-to-kms) and short temporal scales (daily to sub-daily), which are relevant for phytoplankton adaptation and acclimation.

Underwater gliders are autonomous robots that collect data continuously on ocean physics and biogeochemistry as they dive down to 1000m and back, resolving the bio-physical dynamics and its variability over a few hours to seasonal scales and at small horizontal scales.

The project will initially use an existing 4-month glider deployment dataset to evaluate the upper ocean drivers of primary production, focusing on small scale forcing resulting from changes in water column structure and relating these to glider chlorophyll-based estimates of phytoplankton growth. Filling this knowledge gap using these high-resolution data will improve predictions of how the carbon uptake by phytoplankton is affected by both natural variability and changes in physical forcing driven by climate change.

Subsequent work may include participation in the upcoming deployment of 4 gliders and a drifting float in the Labrador Sea. You can then use the collected dataset to focus your analysis on the drivers of small-scale variability in upper ocean primary productivity. Given the interdisciplinary nature of this project, depending on your interests, this project can focus more on the physical processes or the biological/ecological ones.

University of Southampton/National Oceanography Centre

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at National Oceanography Centre (Southampton). Specific training will


  • Opportunities to take part in fieldwork, which may include large oceanographic research vessels and/or from small boats. You may have the opportunity to participate in the deployment of several gliders in the Labrador Sea.
  • Opportunities to attend a hands-on glider training
  • Training on processing and analysis of glider data and various observational datasets.
  • The student may attend appropriate University and Masters level lectures to gain relevant background knowledge.
  • Presentation of the results at (inter)national conferences will be encouraged to disseminate the candidate’s results and to broaden their scientific network.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 
Background Reading: 

Hopkins, J. E., M. R. Palmer, A. J. Poulton, A. E. Hickman, and J. Sharples (2021), Control of a phytoplankton bloom by wind-driven vertical mixing and light availability, Limnol Oceanogr, 66(5), 1926-1949, doi:10.1002/lno.11734.

Carvalho, F., J. Kohut, M. J. Oliver, and O. Schofield (2017), Defining the ecologically relevant mixed‐layer depth for Antarctica's coastal seas, Geophysical Research Letters, 44(1), 338-345, doi:10.1002/2016gl071205.