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Study information

Biological Oceanography

Module titleBiological Oceanography
Module codeGEO3466
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Bob Brewin (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Biological Oceanography takes a view on life in our oceans from bottom upwards. Focusing on microorganisms (phyto- and zoo-plankton) at the base of the food chain, that reside in the photic zone, this module looks at how the ocean’s physical and chemical environment shapes plankton diversity, productivity, and distribution, at global, seasonal and longer time scales. It investigates the role of plankton in the food chain and in ocean biogeochemical cycles. Techniques used to monitor plankton in the laboratory, in situ, from satellite and robotic platforms, are reviewed, and used with mathematical modelling to help understand plankton ecology and how plankton may respond to a changing ocean. The module is linked to broader environmental science topics (e.g. climate change, biogeography, biodiversity and ocean health) taught in the programme. There are no pre-requisites, but it would be useful to have undertaken ocean-based modules (e.g. GEO2457 Physical Ocean Processes) in your second year.

Module aims - intentions of the module

Ocean biology regulates our climate, is responsible for half the oxygen in the atmosphere and is an importance resource of food and energy. It has been described as the planet’s life support system. This module aims to provide you with a background in biological oceanography. You will develop an understanding of how ocean biology is shaped by the physical and chemical environment and influences it through feedback loops. The module explores the distribution and diversity of phytoplankton and zooplankton, and how these organisms modulate marine biogeochemical cycles, the marine food web and even the climate. It takes a look at marine biogeography, how plankton influence the ocean carbon cycle and how plankton are responding to climate change.

There will be a large emphasis in the module on the tools used by scientists to understand biological oceanography, specifically modern satellite-based and robotic platforms and sensors, as well as traditional ship and lab-based techniques, and even historic methods dating back to the 19th Century. Basic numerical modelling will also be used to explore and help explain the interactions between plankton and their environment. The module content will draw on research undertaken by the module convenor, including examples from recent research into: the ocean biological carbon pump, satellite remote sensing of ocean colour, basin scale distributions in phytoplankton composition, and long-term (interannual and decadal) changes in phytoplankton, in response to a changing climate.

Through a series of lectures, online activities and practical sessions you will develop the following graduate attributes relevant to future employment: computer modelling (ocean ecology); satellite remote sensing (ocean colour); data presentation; report writing skills; task management; time management; and general analytical skills.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Discuss and understand the physical, biological and chemical controls on phytoplankton abundance in the ocean
  • 2. Describe the distributions of phytoplankton in the ocean, both spatially (vertical and horizontal) and temporally (seasonally)
  • 3. Summarise comprehensively the processes of primary production, secondary production, and recycling, and the influence these processes have on the transfer of energy through the marine food web
  • 4. Review the advantages and disadvantages of the major tool and techniques (both modern and historical) used in biological oceanography

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of environmental science
  • 6. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems within environmental science
  • 8. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of geography with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 9. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 10. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 11. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance

Syllabus plan

Acknowledging the content may vary from year to year, it is expected that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • An introduction to biological oceanography
  • Phytoplankton abundance and distributions in the ocean
  • Phytoplankton diversity and taxonomy in the ocean
  • Historical and modern techniques used in biological oceanography
  • Techniques used to monitor phytoplankton remotely
  • Primary production, secondary production and recycling of carbon in the ocean
  • The pelagic food web
  • Biogeography in the oceans
  • Key ocean biogeochemical cycles
  • Phytoplankton and climate change

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching14Lectures, online videos and workshops
Scheduled Learning and Teaching8Computer practical sessions and discussion
Scheduled Learning and Teaching4Field trip deploying traditional tools used in biological oceanography
Guided independent study124Additional reading, online exercises, research and preparation for module assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
ELE short answer questions on asynchronous activitiesOngoing throughout moduleAllOral / Online

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay501500 wordsAllWritten
Practical Report501500 wordsAllWritten

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-14August Examination Period
Practical ReportPractical Report1-14August Examination Period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certified reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to complete an additional Essay and Practical Report. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Miller, C.B. & Wheeler, P.A. 2012. Biological Oceanography. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Longhurst, A. 2007. Ecological Geography of the Sea, 2nd Edition. Academic Press
  • Mills, E.L. 2012. Biological Oceanography: An early history, 1870-1960. University of Toronto Press.
  • Valiela, I. 2015. Marine Ecological Processes, 3rd Edition. Springer.
  • Williams, R.G. & Follows, M.J., 2011. Ocean dynamics and the carbon cycle: Principles and mechanisms. Cambridge University Press.
  • Doney, S.C., Glover, D.M., & Jenkins, W.J. 2011. Modeling Methods for Marine Science. Cambridge University Press.
  • Simpson, J. & Sharples, J. 2012. Introduction to the Physical and Biological Oceanography of Shelf Seas. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hawkins, S. J. et al. 2019. Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review. CRC Press.
  • Kaiser, M. J. 2011. Marine Ecology: Processes, Systems, and Impacts, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Bowers, D.G. & Thomas, D. 2012. Introducing oceanography. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd.
  • Lalli, C. Parsons, T. 1997. Biological Oceanography An Introduction. Butterworth-Heinemann.
  • James, R. 2005. Marine Biogeochemical Cycles, 2nd Edition. Butterworth-Heinemann.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Biological, Oceanography, phytoplankton, primary production, ocean, marine, ecology, carbon, climate

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


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NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date