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Satellites have transformed marine biology, but there’s nothing like setting out to sea

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When I first started in marine biology and scientists wanted to study the sea, we had to go out on a ship. My early work on the impact of dredging in estuaries in the Netherlands was very field-focused and I still get excited by going out on the waves and am looking forward to visiting a platform off the North East coast later this year.

But satellite technology has been a game changer and it is now our primary tool, providing us with detailed images on a regular basis.

There has been a step change since I started using satellite data in 2002. Back then, there was a limited number of satellites available and it was a case of sending a fax or email with a request for data along with a cheque for $1,500, then waiting for a month to get a CD in the post.

Now, we have the absolute luxury of having satellite data updated daily on our computer screens and the ability to trawl back through five years of material. The Sentinel satellites in particular give us accurate information about changes in the marine environment and in a consistent way, all without leaving dry land.

This gives us a better understanding about the impact of man-made structures such as windfarms. It was satellites that first showed us that they have an effect on the turbidity of the waters around them.

The wealth of data helps detect global trends, such as ocean warming and El Nino, and closer to home it allows us to map the habitats around our coast. It is also important for offshore industries, enabling them to select sites better and to monitor conditions to decide whether it is safe to work or not.

It is up to society to decide how we want to work with the marine environment and how to minimise the damage caused, but satellites can provide the evidence to make those decisions.

There are thousands of offshore wind turbines that provide ready-made platforms where we can install sensors and devices to monitor the weather, the sea and wildlife. They are already packed full sensors used by industry and I am keen to encourage them to stick on a few extra to help science.

Desk-top oceanography has pushed the boundaries of our understanding in a way that was not possible a few decades ago, but I’m still relishing the prospect of my trip to the offshore windfarm at Blyth, North Sea conditions permitting.

Dr Rodney Forster,

Director, Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies; Reader in Applied Estuarine and Marine Sciences, University of Hull

Rodney Forster will be speaking at the Discover The Possibilities:Into The Blue conference on March 28th – click here to book your free place

The North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence offers opportunities and partnerships to unlock market opportunities within the North East of the UK which will benefit local and national economies.