UEA’s Centre for Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences is to carry out research on bioluminescent phytoplankton – microscopic aquatic plants – in the Indian Ocean. The study, which is partly funded by the US Office of Naval Research, aims to find out more about the processes that control the distribution of phytoplankton in the waters off the coast of Oman.

Each year, the monsoon winds stir up the near-shore waters and bring nutrients to the surface. This feeds large assemblages of phytoplankton, known as blooms. Some species are bioluminescent; others are highly toxic.

The geopolitics of the region makes research both important and challenging. Heightened naval activity in response to the perceived threat from Iran has focused the attention of the world’s militaries on unanswered scientific questions.

Expensive submarines that carry anti-radar technology become inconveniently visible when they sail through a bloom of glowing ocean plants. A more complete understanding of the processes that control the timing and location of photoplankton blooms would help submarines to keep out of their way.

Toxic species, if carried close to the shore, can be hazardous to the health of coastal communities. They can also be poisonous to fish, so it is anticipated that the research will enable the Omani government to better manage fisheries.

Pirate activity in the region makes traditional cruises an unattractive option for conducting research. But UEA’s fleet of seagliders – unmanned submarine robots that can be piloted remotely – can explore these dangerous waters safely. They take measurements of, for example, temperature and oxygen concentration, in the top kilometre of the ocean and send the data back to UEA via satellite.
It is hoped that the use of this innovative technology will enable scientists here at UEA to safely explore important processes in one of the most dangerous and difficult-to-study regions of the ocean.