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World Oceans Day 2024: a spotlight on UCLB’s resident ocean expert Alan Wright

7 June 2024

To mark World Oceans Day 2024, UCLB’s Senior Business Manager, Biogeochemical Oceanographer, Alan Wright discusses climate change, his adventures at sea, and a recently published academic paper.

Tell us about your unusual academic and working background

I was a bit of a troublemaker in my youth, and left school at 16 with no qualifications. I joined the Royal Marines Commandos a few years later. I spent many years as a regular and some more time as a reservist. Early in my service, I studied 3 A Levels via distance learning, which took 7 years. My 20s were spent in the worlds trouble spots, or on adventures, climbing mountains, at sea, or in the Artic and Antarctica.

After leaving regular service, I attended University as a mature student, studying Chemical Physics. Believe me, attending lectures on quantum mechanics as an undergraduate, when a year earlier I was on active service in the Gulf is a culture shock. Soon after my first degree I did an MBA, and it was then that I discovered my business skills. After a few years working for large US corporates, I become CEO of several early-stage start-up companies’, including one that became quite successful manufacturing scientific instrumentation.

When we sold the company to trade a few years later, I was at a loose end and wondered what to do with the rest of my life. I decided to approach the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton (NOC) because I was interested in climate science research, and had experience in the harsh environments that NOC conduct experiments in.

The institution, which in those days was NERC funded, deploys scientists on the three ocean going research ships that constitute the national ocean-going research capability. To have access to this many research ships, including an ice breaker is highly unusual, as many bigger countries have less ships.

I applied for and got a place on an Oceanographic expedition to the Southern Ocean, near the Antarctic mainland, sailing through the infamous Drakes Passage. I was a highly experienced Artic mountaineering specialist, with years of experience driving fast raiding vessels from my time in the military and this must have helped, I guess. I have subsequently been on several high latitude expeditions (both North and South). Whilst at NOC I yet again became a (very mature) student and completed an MSc in chemical oceanography, and a Ph.D. focussed on chemical sensor development for deployment on robotically controlled autonomous underwater vehicles.

What sorts of global impact do these expeditions achieve?

Understanding the oceans is critical to understanding the climate problem. If you compare the amount of  CO2 in the atmosphere today (around 425ppm) and the amount of  CO2 in the atmosphere at the start of the industrial revolution in 1765 (around 280ppm), this might not sound much of an increase, but when you consider that this increase is entirely due to manmade (anthropogenic) processes, such as concrete manufacture and the burning of fossil fuel, the magnitude of the issue begins to become clear. To measure the CO2 levels that were present in 1765, we take ice cores from Antarctica, by drilling down into the ice and use radiocarbon dating techniques to get ice of the right age, we then very carefully measure the CO2 in that ice, giving a good comparative measure of CO2 between now and then.

What do you study at sea?

I have been on all type of expeditions but am currently focussed on CO2 uptake by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing microscopic protists and bacteria that inhabit the upper sunlit layer of marine and freshwater bodies of water on Earth. The amount of photosynthesis that occurs in the ocean, equals the amount that occurs on land via trees and grass etc. The complicated chemistry of photosynthesis involves the uptake of CO2, and the splitting of water molecules. Measuring how much CO2 is taken up by phytoplankton is an extremely complicated process, but crucial if we want to understand Marine Primary Production (MPP). As the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased, one might assume that the amount of phytoplankton have increased proportionally, however extensive research has shown that the uptake of CO2 by phytoplankton is limited by elements such as Fe and Mn (email to get his DY111 paper). Currently, to measure CO2 uptake it is necessary to sample water regularly during an oceanographic expedition, which means being on a ship, which has led to chronic under sampling of the world’s oceans, therefore undermeasuring of the world’s oceans.

What does the development of better instruments mean for humanity?

My background in developing chemical sensors allowed me to contribute to the development of a fully autonomous instrument that can be deployed in an AUV (think of an unmanned submarine 3m long), measuring CO2 uptake by phytoplankton, thus vastly increasing spatial and temporal data availability.

Recent work has focussed on comparing more traditional CO2 measurement techniques with the next generation of instruments described above. This is the result of long-established close working relationship between the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre and several other research institutes worldwide. The most recent paper on this was based on a research trip to the North Atlantic continental shelf and will be published very soon.

You must have faced some intrepid conditions?

I am a seagoing Oceanographer, and I love being at sea in all weathers. As mentioned above, Fe is crucial to CO2 uptake by phytoplankton, and all Fe in the ocean is blown off the land. The Southern Ocean is the only place on the planet where the ocean circulation and winds go all the way around the planet without touching land, consequently it is low in Fe, and so it is a wonderful place to conduct research. However, because there is no land to moderate wind and waves, it is also the roughest ocean on the planet by a long way. I have been in a force 12 gale in the Southern Ocean, and when it’s over you are grateful.

I also spent time in Ny Alsund (80 degrees North), a research camp in the north of Svalbard. Because of Polar bears, everyone has to carry and know how to use a rifle – female polar bears are extremely aggressive when protecting cubs. The polar bear is the largest land carnivore, weighing 1,000 kilos.

How does your experience with climate science tie into commercialisation and UCLB? 

I am working to get UCLB involved with more UCL climate science groups. Climate scientists come from a variety of fields, and often no one understands what they do. I’m well placed to have these conversations because I have a background across many climate-related disciplines and know how to commercialise academic research. I understand the science and know what it’s like to spend time overnight on an ice shelf. We have some great scientists at UCL, such as Helen Czerski. Helen Czerski Profile | University College London (, who is world leader in the physics of waves and bubbles at the ocean’s surface. 

Which technologies do you think hold the best potential?  

To tackle climate change, you first need to measure it. When looking at the Essential Ocean Variables (EOV). There’s lots of interesting research happening within UCL that could be applied to measure EOV’s, (for eg), particularly using AL and ML to make sense of all the data already collected, or to build the next generation of robotically controlled sensors. I’m excited to see how this area develops.  

Alan would love to hear your ideas.  Get in touch at