2019/20 – Making an Impact


We know the ocean is critical to life on earth, yet we are facing a dramatic decline in ocean health, with human activity affecting sea levels, temperature and the millions of species that call the ocean home.

Our ambition to make a positive impact, drive change and bring public benefit in all we do, is measured by these commitments:

  • understanding and advising on climate change
  • reducing pollution of the ocean, by educating and informing
  • securing and protecting ocean resources and ecosystems which provide food, minerals and clean energy
  • protecting coastal communities from erosion, extreme weather and flooding
  • educating people all over the world about ocean issues
  • supporting overseas nations in growing their ocean science and capability.


Our role at the NOC is to combat challenges facing the ocean through scientific understanding and education. As a charity we pledge to advance, innovate, enable and share our knowledge with the global community so that together we can take action to protect the ocean we love.

In November 2020 we launched Ocean Science in Action, a new Massive Online Open Course produced by the NOC-led SOLSTICE-WIO project on the FutureLearn platform. Since then it has reached a global audience, spanning 111 countries with over 2,200 learners so far.

We have also undertaken fieldwork and partnerships in countries around the world, including:

  • Bangladesh
  • Belize
  • Cambodia
  • Dominica
  • Fiji
  • Grenada
  • Indonesia
  • Jamaica
  • Kenya
  • Republic of Kiribati
  • Madagascar
  • Malaysia
  • Mozambique
  • Papua New Guinea
  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Kingdom of Tonga
  • Vietnam

Understand­ing and
Advising on
Climate Change

The ocean regulates the global climate; it mediates temperature and drives the weather, determining rainfall, droughts, and floods. Human activities have significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions, but the ocean has moderated the effects, absorbing more than 90% of excess heat and approximately 30% of excess carbon emissions.

While this is sparing us from the extreme impacts we would otherwise experience on land, it is changing marine ecosystems to the detriment of the animals and plants in these systems and the people who rely on them. Without life in the sea, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would be 50% higher.

Current climate change research carried out by NOC scientists has highlighted how the increasing ice melt is impacting ocean circulation, and how the changing climate is affecting coastal communities through storm surges and sea level rise. Linked to this we are actively investigating how we may apply technological approaches to mitigate rising CO2, for instance through carbon capture and storage and farming adaptations, including how we can use advanced modelling methods to study the migration of fluids deep below the ocean floor to increase our ability to monitor storage reservoirs offshore.

Understanding and Advising on Climate Change

Discovery for

Scientists, engineers and crew from the NOC spent Christmas and New Year sailing through the Southern Ocean on board RRS Discovery, on an expedition to understand the role of this notoriously rough part of the ocean in storing carbon from the atmosphere. Their focus was studying the seasonal growth of microscopic marine plants, called phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton live in the light-rich upper layer of the ocean where abundant supplies of light and nutrients allow them to grow. Although smaller than the width of a human hair, phytoplankton play a very important role in how the ocean and climate function. Phytoplankton obtain nutrition by photosynthesising; they convert sunlight energy into chemical energy and they also take up dissolved elements from seawater, including carbon dioxide, to make new cells.

When marine plants die, the carbon held within them moves deeper into the ocean, some in the stomachs of crustaceans and fish that eat them, or by sinking as ‘marine snow’. This expedition aimed to address some of the uncertainty around how this process happens. In particular, they were looking at the consequences of phytoplankton becoming starved of nutrients as their population outstrips supply. This can change the variety and health of species present, affecting how quickly marine snow sinks.

The movement of carbon into the ocean is particularly important in the Southern Ocean, since it is effectively a ‘motorway junction’ for ocean currents. Which motorway the carbon enters determines how long it will remain ‘locked’ away in the ocean. If shallow, maybe a year or less, if deep, possibly hundreds years or longer.

Combining mission data with year-round observations from two NOC gliders, as well as a moored buoy provided by a US Ocean Observatories Initiative, enabled the study of seasonal change, similar to observation of meadows flowering and dying over the year.

This expedition is part of the CUSTARD (Carbon Uptake and Seasonal Traits in Re-mineralisation Depth) project, and part of the NERC ROSES (Role Of the Southern ocean in the Earth System) programme.

Understanding and Advising on Climate Change

James Cook

In March the RRS James Cook undertook an expedition to measure of one of the world’s largest system of ocean currents, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).

These measurements are used to understand the natural variability of the ocean and climate system and its impact on the weather. This forms part of the National Oceanography Centre led RAPID-AMOC 26N project, which has been collecting data on the AMOC since 2004 in collaboration with the University of Miami and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the USA.

Currently an array of more than 200 instruments are in the water gathering data on the temperature, salinity and flow rate of the AMOC, which is responsible for the transfer of large volumes of heat from the tropics to Northwest Europe, keeping its climate relatively mild. The energy involved in this heat transfer is equivalent to 35,000 times the average rate of electricity consumption in the UK or about one million times the output of an average UK nuclear power station.

With every recovery of data from the RAPID 26N array of instruments, we learn new things about how the large-scale ocean changes on timescales of days to decades. These observations provide a unique dataset used to validate the numerical models used for weather and climate predictions.

The expedition had to be called home early due to COVID-19 but once able, with robust coronavirus safe working conditions in place for all ship and shore staff, it continued onboard RRS Discovery.

This project has continued to evolve by using and supporting innovative technology. Over the last year the on board team recovered water samplers and oxygen measurements to better understand the role of the subtropical North Atlantic in the global carbon cycle.

Based on recent cold winters in the northern North Atlantic, the outcomes of the RAPID-AMOC 26N project predict that the large-scale ocean circulation will have intensified.

Understanding and Advising on Climate Change

Big Science needs
Innovative Engineering

The NOC’s ambitious programme of scientific research is enabled by its world class engineering and technology capabilities. One project leading the way in innovative thinking is Oceanids, a £16 million Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) development programme funded by the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and being delivered and led by the NOC.

The primary aim is to develop enhanced data collection and delivery capability for the UK marine science community, particularly in unexplored and technologically challenging under-ice and deep-ocean environments.

Oceanids is well on its way to delivering two new Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) classes: three 1,500m depth-rated Autosub Long Range vehicles (ALR1500) that will have longer endurance and greater payload capacity compared to the current vehicles; and a 2000 m depth-rated Autosub capable of carrying high-power sensors and operating under ice (Autosub2KUI). The programme will also deliver enhanced ‘command-and-control’ (C2) and data management systems for efficient MAS fleet operations, and a range of new sensors to maximise science output from the new platforms.

This year saw a multidisciplinary team from the NOC visit Loch Ness to conduct trials. Three Autosub Long Range vehicles were unleashed in the Loch in one of the NOC’s largest single deployments of Autosubs, to deliver field tests of the new CarCASS and AutoNuts sensor payloads and trial their integration with the subs.

The Loch Ness trials saw a total of ten new sensors put through their paces. Nine of these were NOC-developed ‘lab-on-chip’ devices, alongside one third-party electrochemical pH sensor.

Oceanids has received extra funding for the next two years to allow Autosub2KUI and ALR to be fully sea trialled to ensure the new capabilities are ready for science deployments anywhere in the ocean. Once complete they will be delivered into the National Marine Equipment Pool, operated and managed by the NOC on behalf of the wider UK marine science community.

Reducing Pollution
of the Ocean

One of the biggest threats to our oceans is anthropogenic pollution. Discarded plastics and other residential waste, discharge from pesticides and industrial chemicals eventually find their way into the ocean with severe consequences for marine life and the habitats they depend on.

Plastics are one of the biggest pollutants in the marine environment with an estimated 10 million tonnes of plastic waste finding its way into our oceans each year.

The harm caused by plastic pollution is wide ranging. It chokes wildlife above and below the waterline. An estimated one million sea birds and an unknown number of sea turtles die each year as a result of plastic debris clogging their digestive tracts, and marine animals of all sorts can become tangled and incapacitated by discarded fishing lines and plastic bags. Fish and other marine life ingest microplastics which in turn can find their way into the human food chain.

The NOC has a dedicated group carrying out cutting-edge research to assess the distribution and transport of plastics to and within the ocean to better understand plastic fate and ecosystem exposure. This is an essential component if we are to understand the effects of plastic contamination on ecosystem health and how this is likely to change in the future.

Reducing Pollution of the Ocean

Plastic Found

The mass of ‘invisible’ microplastics found in the upper waters of the Atlantic Ocean is approximately 12–21 million tonnes, according to research published in the journal Nature Communications.

Significantly, this figure is only for three of the most common types of plastic litter in a limited size range. Yet, it is comparable in magnitude to estimates of all plastic waste that has entered the Atlantic Ocean over the past 65 years: 17 million tonnes. This suggests that the supply of plastic to the ocean have been substantially underestimated.

Previously, we couldn’t balance the mass of floating plastic we observed with the mass we thought had entered the ocean since 1950. This is because earlier studies hadn’t been measuring the concentrations of ‘invisible’ microplastic particles beneath the ocean surface. Our research is the first to have done this across the entire Atlantic, from the UK to the Falklands.

Dr Katsiaryna Pabortsava, NOC scientist and lead author

This is much more than is thought to have been supplied. In order to determine the dangers of plastic contamination to the environment and to humans we need good estimates of the amount and characteristics of this material, how it enters the ocean, how it degrades and then how toxic it is at these concentrations. This paper demonstrates that scientists have had a totally inadequate understanding of even the simplest of these factors, how much is there, and it would seem our estimates of how much is dumped into the ocean has been massively underestimated.

Professor Richard Lampitt, NOC scientist and co-author

This study builds on the NOC’s cutting-edge research into marine plastic contamination, which aims to better understand the magnitude and persistence of exposure to plastics and the potential harms it can cause.

Reducing Pollution of the Ocean


NOC research has revealed for the first time how submarine sediment avalanches can transport microplastics from land into the deep ocean. The study also revealed that these flows are responsible for sorting different types of microplastics – burying some, and moving others vast distances across the sea floor.

These findings may help predict the location of future seafloor microplastic hotspots, which in turn could help direct research into the impact of microplastics on marine life.

Of the ten million tons of plastic pollution exported into the oceans each year, it is thought that around 99% of this is stored in the deep sea, often preferentially accumulating in submarine canyons.

However, it was previously not known how plastic pollution gets to the deep sea from land. The new research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, has shown that microplastics can be moved by gravity-driven sediment flows, which can travel thousands of kilometres over the seafloor.

Studying the distribution of different types of plastic on the seafloor is important because the size and type of plastic particle determines how toxins build up the surface, as well as how likely it is the plastic will enter the gut of any animal that eats it, and what animal may eat it.

These experiments show that sediment flows have the potential to transport large quantities of plastic pollution from near shore environments into the deep sea, where they may impact local ecosystems. The next steps for research will involve sampling and monitoring deep-sea submarine canyon, to understand how robustly these experimental findings can be applied to natural systems and the effects on deep-sea ecosystems.

This research forms part of the urgent global endeavour to understand the extent and implications of microplastic pollution on the health of marine ecosystems.

Find out more about microplastics transport

Securing and
Protect­ing Ocean
Resources and Eco­systems

Ocean resources include clean energy, food, and minerals. The ocean is a major food resource, and for over a billion people it is their primary source of animal protein; therefore, understanding how fisheries will be impacted by global environmental change is vital for human life.

It is estimated that by 2030, 10% of the world’s minerals, including those vital for low-carbon technologies, could come from the ocean floor but biodiversity is decreasing across the planet including in the oceans, due to habitat loss, pollution, and over-exploitation of resources.

To empower decision makers and the public, to make informed choices about these issues and more, the NOC participates in over 100 international programmes, initiatives and boards. Sharing knowledge and understanding, by working in partnership, is vital for achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 14 – conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Securing and Protecting Ocean Resources and Ecosystems

Working in

By collecting data, undertaking scientific research and delivering state-of-the-art capacity building, the international CME programme supports Commonwealth Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to sustainably manage and use their marine resources.

This fieldwork season saw NOC scientists work alongside colleagues from the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI) in Belize, the University of Belize, the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA), and the Belizean Port Authority.

Belizean coastal environments are some of the most fragile in the world, and are facing a combination of challenges from both human and climate change factors. In collaboration with our Belizean colleagues, we are deploying an array of state-of-the-art sensors that enable real-time monitoring of marine conditions and the stresses being placed upon them, in addition to better characterising the ecosystems at risk.

The UK Government-funded CME programme has delivered world leading expertise in marine science since 2016 through a strategic partnership of the NOC, the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO), and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS).

Together the NOC worked to map the seafloor and characterise marine habitats around Belize City. We also installed ocean acidification sensors on the coral reef, which is the second longest in the world, as well as quantified the impact of sea-level rise on carbon burial in mangrove forests. In addition, the team characterised how changes in land-use management affect water quality in coastal environments.

Coastal Communities

Sea levels rising is one effect of climate change, mostly due to a combination of meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion of seawater as it warms.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that between 1901 and 2010 global average sea-level increased by 19cm. By the year 2100 it is likely that global-average sea-level will rise by a further 20 to 80cm, and possibly more, if there is further collapse of certain parts of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

It’s predicted that low-lying coastal regions all over the world will be subject to ever more frequent extreme coastal flooding. In the UK, coastal flooding from storm surges is the single biggest natural disaster risk, impacting over four million people.

The NOC develops computer models of tides and storm surges to deliver improved forecasting systems for coastal flooding and sea-level extreme events. Our science and scientists directly contribute to assessments such as that of the IPCC.

Protecting Coastal Communities

Real Time
Flood Risk

A one-metre sea level rise is almost certain in the next century and it is estimated that 20% of England’s coastal defences could fail under just half this rise. Ambitious climate mitigation and adaptation plans may protect 0.4–0.5 million people, but flood and coastal erosion risks cannot be fully eliminated – we cannot build infinitely high sea walls.

Better ways to measure, forecast, warn of and respond to coastal flooding are required to protect people, property and infrastructure.

The National Oceanography Centre’s WireWall project set out to dramatically improve real-time monitoring to optimise existing forecast services and information accessibility in the UK. Working in partnership with other leading national and global experts the team developed a novel field instrument able to measure the speed and volume of individual waves as they over-topped a sea wall. Their success secured new funding from the UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund to use cutting-edge digital technology to advance environmental outcomes.

REAL TIME FLOOD RISK The new project, ‘Coastal REsistance: Alerts and Monitoring Technologies’, will demonstrate a point-of-impact flood hazard nowcasting system to meet national coastal management needs.

Our team of collaborators are thrilled to have the opportunity to benefit local communities by developing this innovative real-time flood hazard observation system, with the potential for integration into navigation systems diverting people away from flood hazard. We will also be engaging the local community in coastal hazard monitoring through the development of a self-guided coastal walk accompanied by an Augmented Reality phone app that will allow people to visualise storms during calm conditions.

Dr Jenny Brown, NOC Coastal Oceanographer and Coastal REsistance: Alerts and Monitoring Technologies (CreamT) lead

Protecting Coastal Communities

Coastal Defences

The Pearl River Delta in the South China Sea is densely populated and fast-developing, home to 67 million people it is the most urbanised delta in the world. As it is very low-lying, cities here, like Guangzhou, are the most vulnerable to sea level rise. Nature-based coastal defence solutions have increasingly been recognized as more sustainable alternatives to conventional hard engineering approaches against climate change.

Project ANCODE is aiming to understand the potential for the re-introduction of nature-based coastal defences, namely mangroves and oyster reefs, into such an environment. Using wetlands, mangroves, coral and oyster reefs as a buffer zone, which can attenuate waves and, in a regime of moderate sea level rise, the sediment trapping in such zones can keep pace with sea level.

Through this project we are developing process-based understanding and predictive models of ecosystem size requirements and how to create ecosystems for coastal defence, using the world’s largest urban area, the Pearl River Delta as a model system. The project was short-listed for the Newton Prize 2019.

the World
Ocean Issues

As a charity, we recognise we need to do more outside the science and political communities that have been our home. We have been making every effort to organise more public engagement activities, so people in our communities understand more about the ocean.

We also aim to inspire young people to become more involved in ocean issues, as aspiring oceanographers of the future. In the last year, we attended 16 science festivals and school events, and increased our digital engagement to broaden our reach to new audiences.

When our research ships are overseas, we invite local groups to come and see our amazing facilities. This year we were able to visit Canada and Chile before going into lockdown.

Educating the World About Ocean Issues

Monsters of the Deep

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth opened a major new exhibition ‘Monsters of the Deep: Science Fact and Fiction’ which features over 500 samples from the NOC Discovery Collections as well as a model of everyone’s favourite yellow submarine; Autosub Long Range, better known as Boaty McBoatface.

We are proud to be part of this immersive exhibition that shines a light into the abundant but mysterious deep sea world. It is exciting to share not only the unique specimens from the Discovery Collections but the innovative engineering that allows us to explore and better understand this hostile environment. As the ocean profoundly impacts human society I hope this exhibition brings enjoyment and wonder to many people and inspires future generations into ocean focused careers.

Professor Ed Hill CBE, Chief Executive

The exhibition, guest curated by the NOC’s Dr Tammy Horton, takes visitors on an immersive tour through the world of deep-sea monsters, both real and imagined. From Medieval folklore, to the cryptozoologists and monster-hunters of the 20th century, the exhibition examines the enduring fascination with the creatures that live in the depths of the ocean, bringing together rarely seen specimens, artefacts and artworks from world class collections, including the NOC, Royal Museums Greenwich, the British Museum, the Science Museum, and Cambridge University Library.

Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, undertook an official visit of the exhibition in September and met with Dr Tammy Horton and the NOC’s Chief Executive Professor Ed Hill CBE. They introduced The Princess Royal to a section called ‘Meet the Real Monsters of the Deep’ which features over 500 deep sea specimens and samples from the NOC’s Discovery Collection, a globally important research collection that enables scientists and oceanographers to expand understanding of the deepest parts of the ocean.

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s ‘Monsters of the Deep: Science Fact and Fiction’ is open until January 2022. Visit nmmc.co.uk for more information.

Ocean Science
Capability Overseas

The NOC maintains and develops strong and lasting international collaborations in order to tackle the most challenging scientific questions, globally. Many of our partnerships support food and energy security, sustainable marine economies, and resilience to climate change for developing countries.

We are currently working on 15 different projects in 22 countries, with Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding provided predominantly via National Capability (NC-ODA), the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), European Space Agency (ESA) and directly from UK Government. The primary aim of this work is to promote the economic development and welfare of our overseas partners.

Our international partnerships provide new knowledge, outcomes, and capacity building that support partner countries’ abilities to address local, national, regional and international initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG14 and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030), in parallel ensuring alignment with the UK Aid Strategy, in particular to strengthening resilience and response to crises, and tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable.

Growing Ocean Science Capability Overseas

Hosting a Global Classroom

Over 100 million people in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) region live within 100km of the coast, with over 1 million working in the fisheries sector. The WIO is highly dependent on the ocean for economic stability, food security, and social cohesion. In recent years, the region has seen dramatic and often poorly understood reductions in key fisheries, due to the combined effects of climate change, natural ecosystem variability, overfishing and degradation of key marine habitats.

SOLSTICE-WIO is a four-year collaborative project that brings together recent advances in marine technologies, local knowledge and research expertise to address challenges facing the Western Indian Ocean region in a cost-effective way via state-of-the-art technology transfer, collaborative environmental and socio-economic research and hands-on training.

A new Massive Open Online Course was launched by the NOC on Future Learn in October and has already welcomed over 2,200 learners from 111 countries in its first semester. This free online course, Ocean Science in Action: Addressing Marine Ecosystems and Food Security, introduces learners to innovative marine technologies and their applications used to tackle the challenges of the sustainable management of marine ecosystems.

It features over 30 video lectures including footage of fieldwork, numerical ocean model animations and visualisations of the Remote Sensing data. Learners will explore how new technologies can form the basis for environmental research and monitoring programs to deliver decision support for marine policy development and resource management. Using case studies based in the Western Indian Ocean, learners will see how marine science could be applied to the sustainable management of local marine ecosystems, and how this may contribute to global efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The course is an output from the SOLSTICE-WIO project funded by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

‘Ocean Science in Action: Addressing Marine Ecosystems and Food Security’ is available on FutureLearn. Visit solstice-wio.org for more information.

Impact Report 2019/20