2019: a year of discovery at Scottish Association for Marine Science

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In a year when Greta Thunberg shot to prominence by highlighting the plight of our planet in the face of a changing climate, SAMS scientists at Dunbeg were working to find out how our environment – particularly our oceans – are affected.

It was also a year when SAMS (the Scottish Association for Marine Science) awarded the University of the Highlands and Islands’ first PhD – and we received an unexpected visit from a large marine mammal.

Work by former Oban High School pupil Dr Neil Fraser, published in an international journal in early January, revealed how the Greenland ice sheet is losing more ice than previously thought. Greenland is currently losing ice seven times faster than it was in the 1990s but this is not only caused by warmer summers.

Dr Fraser’s work found that subsea waves up to 140 metres high are pushing warm water into the Greenland fjords, melting the ice from below – even in winter.

Dr Natalie Hicks’s work on ocean floor sediment (mud) contributed to a five-year study on the contribution of UK waters to carbon storage, published in February. The survey showed how shelf seas – regions of shallow water, less than 200 metres in depth, between the shoreline and open ocean – are estimated to store between six billion and 19 billion tonnes of CO2. This is significantly larger than the amount taken up in the seawater (up to 2.8 billion tonnes).

At the end of February, students at SAMS UHI had a real-life conservation lecture when a young humpback whale was stranded on the shore outside the institute. Marine ecologists at SAMS were concerned for the welfare of the juvenile, which managed to free itself on the incoming tide and return to the open sea.

In May, a SAMS team led by Prof Elizabeth Cottier-Cook advised governments from around the world on how to manage the expanding global seaweed industry. The seaweed industry is worth almost $9 billion globally and seaweed is used in a number of products like food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Prof Cottier-Cook told the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), part of the United Nations, that the global industry needed better biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of disease.

Last year also marked the beginning of a new university exchange programme with Coastal Carolina University (CCU), South Carolina. Since 2017, the American university has sent a group of students on a training course in Argyll, where they learn various aspects of oceanography and take in aspects of local history and culture.

This autumn, for the first time, an official student exchange programme began between CCU and the University of the Highlands and Islands, further strengthening the transatlantic link.

We also gained two new professors from within our ranks, as Finlo Cottier and Michele Stanley were promoted, while Dr Claire Gachon was awarded the title of Reader.

We hosted thousands of visitors throughout the year, including international delegates at conferences.

Visitors in 2019 included the then Minister for the Cabinet Office and de facto Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington MP (July), Scottish Migration Minister Ben Macpherson MSP (August) and Prof Sir Mark Walport, the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the organisation responsible for £7 billion of UK public funding of research and innovation.

An inspiring graduation ceremony in September saw the awarding of the University of the Highlands and Islands’ first PhD to Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones. The marine microplastics researcher, from Cardigan in Wales, received her award alongside 24 other graduates at the ceremony in Oban’s Argyllshire Gathering Halls.

Among the day’s prize-winners was the SAMS UHI student of the year, Eleanor Lawrie, who gained an honours degree after pausing her studies to care for her ill mother.

In the same week as graduation, we welcomed a record intake of 39 students to our BSc Marine Science and 23 Erasmus Mundus from 18 different countries on our aquaculture Masters programme, ACES+.

Investigations into our changing oceans continued throughout the year and in November Prof Michael Burrows headed an international group of scientists who compiled the most comprehensive assessment of how ocean warming is affecting the mix of species in our global oceans – and explained how some marine species manage to keep their cool.

Reviewing data from 1985-2014, the team led by Prof Michael Burrows of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban showed how subtle changes in the movement of species that prefer cold-water or warm-water, in response to rising temperatures, made a big impact on the global picture.

This year also marked a decade of discovery by our robotics gliders, autonomous underwater robots that continuously patrol the seas to gather data for our scientists.

Since SAMS launched its first glider, named Talisker on October 12, 2009, the SAMS glider fleet has completed 38 missions, clocking up a total of 68,238 kilometres – the circumference of the globe is 40,075 kilometres.

During this time, gliders have allowed oceanographers to make estimates relating to the transport of water along the North Atlantic current and observe its exchanges with the Arctic Ocean.