An Alternative Framework to Assess Marine Ecosystem Functioning in Shelf Seas (AlterEco) is developing and executing a novel monitoring framework to deliver improved understanding in time and space shelf sea ecosystem health and functioning.

The importance of the shelf seas

  • Continental shelf seas, are the relatively shallow waters surrounding the continents. Typically less than 250m deep, they are clearly distinguishable from the deep ocean, which is typically 1000s of metres deep.
  • Despite occupying only 7% of the surface ocean, shelf seas play a major role in the global carbon cycle and marine ecosystem. They are 3-4 times more productive than open-ocean and are responsible for around 30% of total marine air-to-sea fluxes of CO2.
  • Shelf seas, such as the North Sea, are economically important. They support more than 90% of global fish catches and oil and gas extraction in the UK shelf seas alone is valued at 37 billion GBP.
  • Shelf seas are exposed to climate driven and anthropogenic stresses that directly affect their biological productivity, oxygen dynamics and ecosystem function.
  • There is a global increase in the areal extent of oxygen deficiency, which has the potential to seriously impact on ecosystem functioning and the health of shelf seas.
  • Evidence suggests that there has been a 20 year increase in seasonal oxygen depletion in the North Sea.
  • North Sea conditions are directly and indirectly influenced by North Atlantic circulation and multidecadal cycles.


Continental shelf seas


Our aim

The overarching aim of AlterEco is to develop a novel monitoring framework to deliver improved spatio-temporal understanding of key shelf sea ecosystem drivers.

Our approach

AlterEco is a three-year programme that starts with the deployment of small fleets of ocean robots, including submarine gliders and surface vehicles, to provide a continuous measurement campaign in the North Sea between November 2017 and January 2019. Combined with observations and modelling from a variety of complementary projects, AlterEco will attempt to provide atmosphere-through-ocean coverage of North Sea conditions at scales from centimetres to 100s of kilometres and seconds to the full winter-to-winter cycle.

Our robots will help UK scientists and international partners to better define the key indicator parameters that we need to measure and understand to assess shelf-sea-wide ecosystem health and to help define good environmnetal status (GES).


The AlterEco Project will:

  1. Use the latest robotic technology to provide measurements of ocean processes in time and space to better understand the impacts of variability on the functioning of the shelf sea ecosystem in different years.
  2. Provide the tools necessary for informing ocean forecasting models of the stressors on and consequences of the environmental status of shelf seas.
  3. Trial a modular integrated framework for a new, efficient, diagnostic monitoring system for the sea that has global transferability.


In the UK alone, marine data collection costs approximately £80 million per year, but there is increasing pressure across sectors to reduce these costs. Coupled with public demand for open access, verifiability and the growing need data transferability between different stakeholders and users, is promoting a more integrated approach to marine monitoring. This was demonstrated by the formation of the UK Integrated Marine Observing Network (UK-IMON). AlterEco will help such initiatives by contributing to the evidence base for future assessments of UK marine environmental status and by testing the capability of emerging technologies in achieving cost-effective and improved capability monitoring solutions.

Marine robots are one of the UK Government’s ‘great technologies’, identified to have large economic growth potential for the UK. The results of this programme will be combined together with existing techniques to help fulfill the UK’s legal requirements for monitoring water quality Good Environmental Status. AlterEco will thus be of interest to stakeholders such as agencies with marine monitoring obligations (DEFRA, Cefas, Marine Scotland and AFBI) as well as the growing community of glider and sensor manufacturers. A further aspiration of AlterEco is to enable global transferability of newly developed framework to assist developing nations accomplish affordable marine system monitoring capability without the need of large scale infrastructure such as dedicated research vessels.

The data gathered by AlterEco will feed into international marine data infrastructures provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODNet). The work will assist the development of next-generation ocean forecast models by providing data directly to the WMO Global Telecommunication Service (GTS) and through collaboration with project partner the UK Met Office (UKMO). AlterEco alongside other ongoing work in the robotics sector will also seek to develop improvements to processing, analysis and mangement of data collected with marine robotics.

Over the course of the 3 year programme AlterECO will be actively engaging with stakeholders via a range of events and activities so make sure to keep up with updates on the website.


Who’s Involved

Project partners National and international collaboration and world-class expertise

The AlterEco project will be led by the National Oceanography Centre and is a collaboration between the British Antarctic Survey and the universities of Queen Mary London, Liverpool, Oxford and Southampton. The project has received funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council and will run between April 2017 and 2021.


Partner organisations



Pathways to Impact

Blue Consulting Ltd