MARVL – Changing Marine Research

MARVL – Changing Marine Research

MARVL, the Marine Virtual Laboratory funded through NeCTAR, is helping marine scientists make better use of ocean observations to improve forecasting and planning for marine and coastal environments.

“The ocean is the driving force of the planet’s climate. It’s the heat store for the world’s atmosphere,” says Dr Roger Proctor, Lead Scientist for MARVL.

“Without understanding how the ocean and the atmosphere interact, you have little chance of accurately predicting the weather.”

Observing and modelling the oceans

Several years ago, there was no coordinated effort to understand Australia’s oceans.  Organisations such as CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Royal Australian Navy, and university groups researching marine science each had their own observing programs or their own forecasting models.

The first large-scale cooperative project began when Bluelink was established in 2001 as a partnership between CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Royal Australian Navy, to develop reliable ocean forecasting for maritime users on a short term forecast horizon.

“But there was nothing for observations. It was do your own thing basically. Different groups ran their own programs but these were uncoordinated,” says Dr Proctor.

To address this, Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), was established in 2007 under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

IMOS collects observations from a variety of measuring platforms including Argo floats, ships, tagged animals, moorings and underwater vehicles.

For example, there are more than 3,000 Argo floats deployed around the world’s oceans, each follows a 10-day cycle, drifting along at 1500m depth for 9 days, and on the 10th day sinking to a depth of 2,000m and then measuring ocean temperature and salinity as it rises to the surface.  At the surface it relays the information via satellite to a data centre. IMOS is the second largest contributor to this international dataset.

All IMOS data is freely and openly available through the IMOS Ocean Portal for the benefit of Australian marine and climate science. These measurements, collectively and over time, reveal trends including how temperatures, ocean chemical properties, and fish populations fluctuate at various locations.

However, the observations alone cannot create medium to long-term forecasts or predict what will happen under particular conditions. This is where models and simulations come in, but neither IMOS nor Bluelink brought the observations and modelling together in a consistent way.

Bringing the observations and models together

The NeCTAR virtual laboratory program provided a great opportunity for the marine science community to do this.

“It’s always been an aspiration to bring observations and modelling together if we could,” says Dr Proctor.

“At IMOS we originally had an idea that under NeCTAR we would set up a virtual laboratory which was biased towards observations but delivered in a way that would be more useful to modellers. At the same time CSIRO had an idea to put in a proposal to modify their Relocatable Ocean and Atmospheric Model (ROAM) developed as part of Bluelink, so that it could deliver modelling packages to users more easily.

“A lightbulb went on and we saw we could integrate these two elements. So MARVL came about because the groups talked to each other and realised they were planning to submit different proposals that were actually 100% complementary.”

Both the modelling and observations communities are gaining from this interaction.

“The modellers are getting new ideas on how they can use the observations and the data people are gaining new ideas on ways to present data which are more suitable for ingestion into simulations and models,” Dr Proctor says.

Getting down to research in record time

Stage 2 of MARVL is currently being tested by the major marine research groups in different regions around Australia, and it will soon be available more widely .

One of the first scientists to benefit from using MARVL is Ian Coghlan, a Senior Coastal Engineer at UNSW’s Water Research Laboratory. Ian is studying coastal erosion at the Solitary Islands near Coffs Harbour in New South Wales.

He needs to run a range of wave experiments in order to determine the conditions under which coastal erosion is likely to happen, and whether anything can be done to prevent the islands from being washed away.

Prior to MARVL, configuring the wave model was a painstaking process requiring 2-3 months, significant modelling expertise, and permission from a number of different organisations.

Prior to MARVL, configuring the wave model was a painstaking process requiring 2-3 months, significant modelling expertise, and permission from a number of different organisations to access forcing datasets. Using MARVL, he was able to reduce his setup time by a factor of 40 by making a few selections from the MARVL web interface.

This drastically reduces the lead time to start working directly on his research questions, and if any changes to the initialisation of the wave model are needed, a refined model can be set up and executed promptly through the virtual laboratory.

Ian Cochlan’s island erosion research is just one of many marine science questions that can be investigated more effectively by bringing ocean models and observations together through MARVL.

“Another example is the recent problem occurring down the east coast of Tasmania,” says Dr Proctor.  “The fisheries have been closed because of paralytic shellfish poisoning—PSP.  There is an alga coming from outside the area into the food chain. The shellfish generate a toxin in response to it which can be fatal to us if we eat them.

“The question is, where does it come from?  Being able to quickly model these areas with the correct observations would help us to find out. And if you can do that, you can identify where you need to collect observations in the future to be able to set up a warning system.”

The future of Australian marine science

MARVL is already drawing international attention. One of the most common models used by marine scientists worldwide is the Regional Ocean Modelling System (ROMS). ROMS is difficult for users to set up. However with MARVL, many of the problems encountered by users are overcome..

“I’ve been to two international conferences recently where people came up to me saying, ‘when can we have MARVL? Put me on subscription list.’ Because it does exactly what everybody wants to be able to do,” Dr Proctor says.

With MARVL, the Australian marine science community now has a virtual laboratory that allows them to rapidly begin addressing their research questions, rather than spending time and effort configuring models and gaining access to data.

“MARVL enables you to start thinking about your problem sooner and less about assembling all the information to get to that point,” says Dr Proctor.

“MARVL is the first step, and it’s only the first step. It’s not a black box that does absolutely everything. We’d like to make it faster and easier to use. We’d like to begin integrating biological models in addition to the physical models we have now, and that’s a whole new challenge. We’d like to get to the point where marine park and fisheries managers can use it to do scenario planning.”

MARVL will play a key role in the next challenge on the horizon: the Australian National Shelf Reanalysis (ANSR) project, aiming to produce a computer simulation of 20 years, covering the shelf sea regions around Australia and containing the relevant observations collected by IMOS and partners in the Australian Ocean Data Network.

For more information about MARVL, go to