How will changing shipping emissions affect the atmospheric deposition of trace elements to the surface ocean?

Primary supervisor: Dr Simon Ussher (University of Plymouth)

Secondary supervisor: Dr Angela Milne (University of Plymouth)

Additional supervisors:

Dr Tom Bell (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) Email:

Professor Alex Baker (University of East Anglia) Email:

Scientific background and significance

Airborne particles are often natural in origin (e.g. sea salt, dust) but there is concern that modern anthropogenic aerosols have significant effects on sensitive marine ecosystems and human health. 

A major contributor to atmospheric pollutants is shipping traffic, which is continually increasing due to expanding populations and global trade. Atmospheric emissions are set to undergo significant global reform in the coming decades, including a change to international shipping regulations in 2020 banning the emissions of high sulfur fuel. The environmental impact of these changes remains unknown.

In this project, you will determine trace elements in ship emissions and aerosol/rainwater samples collected at coastal and open ocean sampling sites in Cornwall (UK) and Bermuda. 

Laboratory simulations will be used to study the dissolution of aerosol trace elements into seawater, using established trace techniques. Using these data, the project will address the impact that changing maritime shipping emissions can have on ocean ecosystems either by deposition of nutrient-type trace elements (P, N, Fe) or harmful toxic heavy metals, (e.g. Cu and Cd). 

The final goal is to use the results to inform the shipping industry and governments of best practice and the impact of the changing chemistry of aerosols and gases released from ships.

Research methods, training and supervision

You will become an expert in cutting-edge techniques to sample and analyse marine aerosols and rainwaters conducting fieldwork on ships, at a coastal atmospheric observatory (Penlee Point, Cornwall) and in the subtropical North Atlantic Ocean (Bermuda). 

Alongside this, you will receive comprehensive, hands-on training in advanced analytical techniques, including mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and X-ray techniques (XRF and SEM-EDX) within the Biogeochemistry Research Centre.

You will benefit from a team of experienced supervisors from the University of Plymouth, University of East Anglia (UEA), and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) and scientific networks and career opportunities associated with these institutes.

Person specification

We are looking for a motivated graduate with a BSc or Masters level degree in Environmental Science, Marine Science or Chemistry (or similar courses) with a genuine passion for marine and atmospheric science.

Research background

Maritime shipping is a significant source of anthropogenic emissions and exhibits continuous growth, in-line with world trade expansion. 

The large-scale biogeochemical and human health effects of shipping emissions remain largely unknown, though there is scalable empirical evidence of negative impact based on the known production of toxic heavy metals, inert carbonaceous nanoparticles and various organic molecules. 

Furthermore, the proximity of shipping routes to marine habitats and human population centres and the potential impact to the growth of marine phytoplankton means knowledge of the impact of these emissions is required.

This project aim is to assess the impact of shipping emissions and changing practices (e.g. low-sulfur fuels, scrubbers) on atmospheric inputs of soluble nutrients (N, P and Fe) and toxic heavy metals (e.g. Cu, Sn, Cd) to the surface ocean. 

This subject was identified as an emerging study area within the SOLAS community (Kiel, 2015). It is timely as substantial reform of maritime shipping practice is on the horizon in 2020 when new sulfur emission restrictions are put into place by the International Marine Organisation (IMO) which will have far-reaching environmental and socioeconomic consequences.

Measurable objectives for the studentship:

  • Literature review of atmospheric trace elements in the marine environment, shipping emissions and fuels.
  • Collection of end member ship exhaust/plumes samples and seasonal ambient aerosol and rainwater samples. Conducted via shipboard sampling in the English Channel and land-based observatories (Penlee Point, UK and Tudor Hill, Bermuda).
  • Perform aerosol digests (HF/HNO3) and leaches (water-soluble fraction) in representative ‘trace metal clean’ seawater and analyse these using ICP methods and characterize aerosols using X-ray spectroscopic techniques.
  • Interpret data to elucidate environmental significance, identifying sources using meteorological and chemical data (e.g. V/Ni ratios) and chemical characteristics of contrasting aerosol populations. Calculating fluxes and evaluate the impact of emissions by incorporating within biogeochemical models.

Research methodology, training and personal development

This project will provide a first-class research experience for a student interested in marine and atmospheric science. The scope of the research question concerning shipping emissions will allow independent thinking and hypothesis testing, and result in a significant contribution to knowledge. 

Value-added world-class analytical training will be provided by experienced postdocs in well-equipped laboratories (ICP-MS, XRF) at UEA and Plymouth. 

Involvement in the sampling sites, managed by PML and BIOS, will provide opportunities to network with other leading institutes in the field of atmospheric and marine science. 

The student will be integrated into a supportive postgraduate research environment within the Biogeochemistry Research Group and the Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) at UEA.

In collaboration with BIOS and Old Dominion University, a three-month internship will be conducted in Bermuda working with Dr Andrew Peters and Prof Peter Sedwick providing a unique opportunity for the student to network with leading US and international marine scientists. 

Intellectual training will be ensured by bimonthly supervisory meetings and research group presentations.


This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. Undertaking a PhD with ARIES will involve attendance at training events.

ARIES is committed to equality & diversity, and inclusion of students of any and all backgrounds. All ARIES Universities have Athena Swan Bronze status as a minimum.  

Applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited environmental science experience may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses.

Usually, only UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for three years are eligible for a stipend. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 26/27 February 2019.  

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