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From campus to coast How a small Scottish village is helping to train marine scientists

Our seas are changing rapidly. But a University of Edinburgh partnership with a Berwickshire marine station is creating new opportunities for students and researchers to understand more about what these changes mean for marine life, for the planet, and for society.

Kelsey Barnhill knew she wanted to be a deep-sea scientist from the age of 18 when she discovered that we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the seafloor. Now, the University of Edinburgh PhD student is answering her own scientific questions, carrying out experiments in a Berwickshire-based marine station to investigate how cold-water corals could be affected by climate change.

“I was drawn to cold-water corals as they create large reef structures which provide habitats for thousands of deep sea species. The future of deep-sea ecosystems depends on how cold-water coral reefs will respond to climate change and other manmade influences,” she says.

“If you care about the earth, you have to care about the ocean. It is incredibly exciting that exploration is ongoing in the deep sea, but I worry human impacts will destroy some marine habitats before we have even discovered them.”

"It is incredibly exciting that exploration is ongoing in the deep sea, but I worry human impacts will destroy some marine habitats before we have even discovered them.”

Kelsey Barnhill

The St Abbs Marine Station, where Kelsey is doing her research, was established in 2012 with a vision to give back to the local marine and coastal community, inform wider conservation and sustainability efforts and train future marine scientists. Without access to this facility Kelsey would have had to rely on using artificial conditions to study her corals, which would risk harming them.

"My corals would have been placed in tanks with artificial seawater that would have negatively impacted their health. The flow-through seawater system at St Abbs allows my corals to live in real seawater where they can filter feed on plankton in the water and be exposed to conditions more similar to their natural habitat,” she explains.

The University has just signed a five-year partnership with St Abbs Marine Station to open up more opportunities for teaching and research – the type of opportunities that can’t be accessed in a city centre, despite being relatively close to the coast.

“The University of Edinburgh’s really good at looking at our whole earth system in relation to climate change, so having a facility like this that allows us to reference the 70% of the earth that we don’t have the facility to explore is pretty essential,” says Professor Murray Roberts, Head of the Changing Oceans Research Group and Chair of the Joint Working Group between St Abbs Marine Station and the University of Edinburgh.

“One thing I found when I started lecturing at Edinburgh was how many students asked why there’s not more marine science at Edinburgh. A lack of the right facilities was one barrier but it’s something we're starting to deal with. This marine station is sitting right on the coast. It has an infinite supply of high-quality seawater and St Abbs itself is the oldest marine reserve and the oldest established monitoring reserve in the UK. It’s a very special natural environment.”

"St Abbs itself is the oldest marine reserve and the oldest established monitoring reserve in the UK. It’s a very special natural environment.”

Professor Murray Roberts

The Berwickshire Marine Reserve, where the marine station is based, has long been a draw for marine biologists and divers. Unusually clear waters reveal underwater worlds rich in marine diversity. Rocky reefs and kelp forests teem with life: fish, crabs, lobsters, jellyfish, urchins and more. The mixture of hot and cold currents invites an unusual selection of species. For example the Wolffish, usually found in Arctic waters or the Devonshire Cup Coral, which will typically make its home where it’s warmer.

“We’re actually within a legal protected area with the Berwickshire, north Northumberland marine site, so for a long time people have realised that there’s something special here. You also have coasts and cliffs and nearby meadows. You’ve got the St Abbs national nature reserves, which is one of the world’s largest cultural colonies for seabirds,” says Dr Kevin Scott, who is the facilities manager for St Abbs Marine Station, and has been with the station’s team for around eight years.

Dr Scott adds that the marine station’s construction and design also makes it special. The highly specialised facility has been purpose-built for optimal research conditions. Seawater is pumped into the facility’s tanks and the clear roof lets in light, creating conditions as close to natural as possible for the marine life held there.

"Climate change is changing the chemistry of the sea, the oxygen levels of the sea, the temperature of the sea, and with a very controlled marine station facility we can manipulate seawater – we can reproduce conditions we might not see for another 100 years."

Professor Murray Roberts

The station has been constructed without using iron, a material usually found in similar facilities. This creates an ideal environment to conduct research on electromagnetic fields without the magnetic interference you might expect in the presence of iron. An area of focus for some of the scientists working at the facility is understanding how generating electricity using offshore renewable energy technology may affect marine creatures. And with the rapid growth of this sector and an ever-pressing need for alternative energy sources, this research is urgent.

“The Marine Station’s perfect for studies to explore how electromagnetic fields affect marine species and this is exactly the sort of research we need to see moving forward as we transition to a new renewables-based economy,” says Professor Roberts.

“As marine renewable installations spread across the North Sea and elsewhere we have to understand the implications on the natural world. These huge increases in human activities are happening as global climate change alters the very nature of the sea. Climate change is changing the chemistry of the sea, the oxygen levels of the sea, the temperature of the sea, and with a very controlled marine station facility we can manipulate seawater – we can reproduce conditions we might not see for another 100 years and we can do that at scale in a controlled marine station context rather than just in a few buckets in a laboratory in the Grant Institute, which is all we can do at the moment.”

While the station’s focus centres around understanding the impacts of potential stressors in the marine environment, its remit is large, says Dr Scott. Something that’s been achieved through partnership working with universities, government, NGOs or charities.

“The combined access to new systems and facilities allows our students to investigate the sustainability of human activities in our seas and oceans, and how we might adapt planning and management systems to account for climate change.”

Dr Lea-Anne Henry

Edinburgh researchers involved in the St Abbs Working Group include Dr Sinead Collins who is interested in how microscopic marine algae, which provide food for many sea creatures, might respond to changing ocean conditions. Professor Ross Houston and Dr Tim Bean, both of the Roslin Institute, have identified opportunities to use the facility for their research in sustainable aquaculture. PhD students, like Kelsey, are already using the facility to run experiments and there are plans to take masters students there once Covid restrictions have eased, and further ahead small-group undergraduate teaching could be possible.

For Dr Lea-Anne Henry, who leads Edinburgh’s MSc in Marine Systems and Policies, the facility widens the opportunities for students’ research dissertations.

“Being so close to shore now and in a busy village harbour, this greatly widens our scope for dive-based, snorkel-based and boat-based dissertation projects but also for socioeconomic studies and sociocultural projects too. Station facilities are bespoke, and now let us give students access to the latest equipment for experiments and aquaria and culturing facilities to improve environmental decision-making with regards to offshore windfarms and marine infrastructure too,” she says.

“The combined access to new systems and facilities allows our students to investigate the sustainability of human activities in our seas and oceans, and how we might adapt planning and management systems to account for climate change.”

"We want to give back. We speak to our fishermen or our divers and ask them what issues they see and we put as much resource as we can in helping to address those issues."

Dr Kevin Scott

St Abbs Marine Station doesn’t operate in isolation. It’s an integral part of the local community it serves, working regularly alongside the creelers and the divers, whose insights can help shape the research that is carried out at the station. Giving something back to the community is a core part of its ethos.

“We built links within the community from the get-go,” explains Dr Scott. “We work with divers, dive boats, photographers, lifeboats – two members of our staff are on the lifeboat – and perhaps most importantly, the fishermen. We’ve worked with them for a long, long time and they underpin a lot of our research. We want to give back. We speak to our fishermen or our divers and ask them what issues they see and we put as much resource as we can in helping to address those issues.”

These links add further scope and opportunity to the research and educational experiences on offer. Professor Roberts is keen to see students or researchers involved with all elements of St Abbs’ coastal community.

“Working with the people in the village we can achieve so much without the University having to invest lots of money in boats or complex equipment. We try to co-design all our work. So we don’t just come up with a concept and sort of parachute in. We try to involve others right at the early stages when our ideas are not yet fully formed. We find that model works really well.”

Credits:

St Abbs Marine Station