Celebrating marine science on World Oceans Day
In recognition of the United Nations World Oceans Day on 8 June, we dive in to the research and international contributions of our University of Sydney Marine Studies Institute.
As one of the largest marine research and education centres in Australia, our Marine Studies Institute conducts marine science across a huge range of areas.
Ocean acidification and climate change
Professor Maria Byrne, from our School of Life and Environmental Sciences, researches the impact of environmental acidification on the microstructure and mechanical integrity of marine invertebrate skeletons in organisms such as corals, tube worms, sea urchins, and bivalves. Her research is important in understanding how marine biominerals will perform in the face of changing climate.
One of Professor Byrne’s PhD students, Dione Deaker, recently found that juvenile crown of thorns starfish can lurk harmlessly for more than six years before maturing and attacking coral. This extended youth effect means that populations of juvenile herbivorous crown of thorns starfish can build up on reefs in the absence of coral, as the coral recovers from events such as coral bleaching, but trigger into their adult coral-eating form once there is enough coral. Her research could force a rethink on the crown of thorns culling methods used to protect corals on the Great Barrier Reef.
Research by Dr Elliot Scanes and Professor Pauline Ross, from our School of Life and Environmental Sciences, has found that estuaries are warming at twice the rate of oceans and atmosphere, and acidification of estuaries was increasing by 0.09 pH units per year. This has huge implications for oceans, as estuaries are relied on by many marine organisms and birds. Their research used data taken over 12 years from rivers, lakes, lagoons and creeks along the entire NSW coast, which showed an increase in temperature and acidity, raising concerns for biodiversity and aquaculture.
Marine plastic pollution
Dr Edwina Tanner, from the School of Geosciences, and Petra Arola, research associate in the Marine Studies Institute, are studying the distribution of microplastics on Australian beaches on a spatial and temporal scale. The increasing amounts of microplastics in the marine environment is a global problem, and research in the area has surged during the last decade. An important part of the research is determining the sources and sinks of microplastics in order to minimise the spread of plastic pollution.
The research is identifying hotspots for microplastic sedimentation in beach sand by looking at abundances of microplastics in different locations. They are also finding links between sources and sinks for microplastics by correlating the abundances of microplastics to potential sources of plastic pollution, such as the urban environment, tourism and industry, as well as by observing patterns of movement for plastic litter with the help of hydrodynamic modelling.
Data used is coming from AUSMAP – a citizen science organisation – and Professor Andrew Short’s beach database, and additional samples collected to fill in data gaps. AUSMAP has been collecting data on the occurrence of microplastics on beaches around Australia since 2018, and the database holds valuable information about the current distribution of microplastics. Professor Short’s database includes samples of sand from beaches around Australia collected from 1987 to 2004. Analysing the microplastic content of these samples and comparing them to the current levels allows the group to study the temporal changes in microplastic abundances on the beaches.
How metals stay on top of the seafloor
Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz, from our School of Geosciences, has found out how deep-ocean metals remain uncovered on the open sea floor – a mystery until now as to how lumps of rare metallic elements on the deep-ocean floor remain uncovered despite the shifting sands and sediment in the deep ocean.
She found that organisms, such as starfish, octopuses and molluscs, seem to keep the nodules at the seafloor surface by foraging, burrowing and ingesting sediment on and around them. Her findings could help geoscientists provide advice to the mining industry, while preserving the fauna at the bottom of the ocean.
Mercury levels in fish
The Marine Studies Institute is currently creating a global mercury in fish database, in collaboration with the University of Sydney Informatics hub, to understand mercury levels in fish worldwide.
To create the database, the team has sourced scientific articles from across the globe on mercury concentrations in fish, and compiled the results into the new database. The database constructs a bigger picture of where and how mercury is accumulated, and how it may affect populations consuming fish in those areas.
As the database grows, it will show mercury concentrations in fish throughout the world, and how mercury concentrations vary between species, trophic levels and regions.
Shaping international and national marine capacity
The Marine Studies Institute was granted membership of the United Nations’ Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) in November 2019, as one of only nine Australian members. CTCN members are invited to play a meaningful role in information sharing and capacity building; providing technical assistance in response to country requests; and participating in outreach and networking activities.
Associate Professor Will Figueira, from our School of Life and Environmental Sciences and also director of the University’s One Tree Island, was appointed as the University’s representative on the National Marine Science committee in May 2020. His role on the committee will help change marine science policy at the national level. He will be introducing the activities of the Marine Studies Institute at the next committee meeting, where they will also be reviewing the national science plan.
The Marine Studies Institute is actively tracking how their research projects align with the United Nations sustainable development goals. The United Nations set out the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development featuring 17 sustainable development goals, which all UN member states adopted in 2015. Our researchers are providing valuable research in numerous of these sustainable development goals.