Seagrass meadows are the powerhouses of coastal seas, providing a nature-based solution to climate change.
They have been neglected for decades, which has led to their large-scale degradation and loss. This loss now provides an opportunity for environmental renewal through large-scale restoration.
For this month’s Scientist Spotlight, we spoke to Biogeochemist Dr Claire Evans from the Ocean BioGeosciences (OBG) group at NOC, about her role in leading research to help restore these vital marine habitats.
What is your role in Seagrass research at NOC?
As a Biogeochemist, I conduct research to determine how elements, in particular carbon, cycle through the Ocean and the rest of the Earth system. In my role at NOC I lead, and contribute to, a number of projects to investigate how seagrasses contributes to the cycling of carbon and, more broadly, understanding what other useful things they do. In order to do this, I examine where seagrass beds are located, where they could be restored, and the potential value of all the ecosystem services they provide.
What drew you to working in this area?
The central question in my research is: how does the ocean store carbon? We believe that coastal vegetated habitats, namely mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses, are particularly good at this, because they capture carbon quickly and can store it for thousands of years.
We have lost a lot of these habitats over recent years; in fact, they are some of the most threatened and degraded habitats on Earth. However, that also gives us the opportunity to restore them as part of our effort to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity. To make this happen, research is required to quantify the benefits that seagrass provides, such as the rate at which they capture carbon, their contribution to supporting fisheries, and by providing coastal protection, and moreover we need to understand how we can maximise these positive impacts.
What science are you currently working on in relation to the Seagrass?
Currently, I have seagrass projects at various sites around the world, including the UK, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The specific science I am interested in is looking at how much, and how fast, carbon is accumulated in the beds below the seagrasses, and what factors control this. Therefore, I investigate at factors such as where the carbon might be coming from and how human activities impact the seagrass. For example, an important question I am working on is how the switch from natural tropical forests to agriculture near the coast might make the adjacent marine habitats unsuitable for seagrass.
Closer to home, I am currently leading a large project called ReSOW which is providing all the tools and knowledge required to enable large scale restoration of the UK’s seagrass beds.
What is your favourite thing about the work you do?
I really enjoy working with diverse teams of people, including scientists from other disciplines, governmental bodies, commercial enterprise and charities. As the importance of the Ocean to addressing the challenges of climate change and the loss of biodiversity has come into focus, it has provided greater scope for multidisciplinary scientific efforts, partnering directly with stakeholders to generate the evidence we need.
I very much enjoy leading these projects, as they build bridges from environmental and social sciences to the needs of policy makers and coastal mangers, and even helping to shape the nature-based commercial and financial ‘seascapes’ of the future. Thus, my job is to determine what evidence is required to unpin decision making, leading and co-ordinating the acquisition of this evidence, and then communicating it in an understandable way to a wide range of stakeholders involved.
What impact does your science have on society?
It’s hard not to worry about how the state of the planet, in terms of climatic change and the dramatic ongoing loss of biodiversity, is going to impact society into the future. Doing science in direct collaboration with those bodies that will put it to use, by supporting nature’s ability to mitigate these problems, is highly rewarding, as it has a positive impact on our environment and the security of our way of life. I also think that society benefits from the better understanding of how the Ocean functions more generally that NOC generates, as this allows us to improve our predictions about the future and gives us early warning signs of harmful change already underway.
We are the UK’s leading ocean research charity, and our Seagrass experts are at the forefront of research, providing evidence for decision makers. Whether your passion is combating climate change, protecting ocean life, or equipping the next generation, you can have a direct impact by supporting world leading ocean research and innovation.