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Research @ Mandela

Chair: Ocean Science and Food Security


Professor Michael Roberts

Primary discipline: Marine Ecosystem Functioning

Faculty: Science

Biosketch of incumbent

Professor Roberts obtained a BSc at the University of Natal in chemistry, applied chemistry and physics. At postgraduate level he did a BSc (hons) in analytical marine chemistry at UCT and a research MSc on nearshore oceanography of Algoa Bay at the University of Port Elizabeth.

He returned to UCT to complete a PhD in physical oceanography. He received the DTi-NRF award for Scientific Excellence in Innovative Technology Development and the DEA: Oceans & Coasts "Award for Individual Excellence" both in 2010. He has been chief scientist on more than 30 cruises and Principal Investigator (PI) of over 36 research projects ranging from national NRF, fishing industry and government projects to large international projects including the ASCLME (Agulhas Somali Currents Large Marine Ecosystem), MESOBIO (Influence of mesoscale dynamics on biological productivity at multiple trophic levels in the Mozambique Channel), SAMOC (South Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) and the Agulhas System Climate Array (ASCA).

Of the 32 national/international committees he previously/presently resided on ─ possibly the most significant are the IIOE2 SCOR Science Development Committee and the Sustained Indian Ocean Biogeochemical Ecosystem Research (SIBER) – the latter of which he is co-chair.

He has established 3 research groups/schools: Physical and Applied Oceanography Group (MCM); Centre for Operational and Observational Oceanography ( (DEA), and recently the Regional School of Technical Oceanography (SOTO) at the V&A Waterfront (CPUP). Academic experience includes the publication of over 90 articles and reports, lecturing physical oceanography and ecosystem functioning at UPE, RU, and UCT, and supervising 55 postgraduate students.

Relevance of research

The Indian Ocean has many pressing and escalating societal pressures ─ mostly driven by the massive population (2 billion people) which lives around the equatorial and northern rim and islands. India’s population alone increased more than 75% between 1970 and 2000, reaching 1.3 billion people in 2014. The declining state of both artisanal and industrial fisheries raises serious concerns about food security in this region especially in light of climate change and a changing global ocean. Indeed, the Indian Ocean is one of the fastest warming ocean basins and convincing evidence now exists that demonstrates climate change is impacting ocean upwelling ─ one of the most fundamental and powerful mechanisms in ocean dynamics that underpins the critical supply of nutrients to sustain ecosystems and marine food resources.

Current research interests

Current research investigates the underpinning processes that sustain food security (i.e. ecosystem functioning) with a strong focus on how climate change and a changing global ocean will impact marine upwelling systems in the western Indian Ocean. Investigation of these upwelling systems and their links to food security requires a full multidisciplinary approach from physics to fish to forecasts (security), and encompasses and couples the fields of physical oceanography, biogeochemistry, plankton, trophic ecology, fisheries and food resources ─ all quantified by end to end ecosystem and socio-economic modelling. Prof Roberts’ research program called the Western Indian Ocean Upwelling Research Initiative (WIOURI) totally embraces this approach and moreover uses modelling not only to understand, couple and quantify processes, but also to streamline the avenues of multidisciplinary investigation making the research program more focused on the ultimate deliverable ─ how and by how much is climate change and a changing ocean going to impact food resources in the WIO. Great emphasis is placed on linking and transferring these research outputs into ocean governance and food security structures including national governmental departments, SAPHIRE, ESPA, Nairobi Convention and the FAO. Indeed, the FAO is thoroughly involved in WIOURI as its EAF−Nansen program is a core partner.