BIOS At The Forefront Of Ocean Sciences
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- Case Study
Bermuda has a strong claim to the title of the world’s climate risk capital – and the island’s best-in-class catastrophe reinsurance industry is only part of the story. Before a risk can be properly underwritten, it has to be well understood and that’s where the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) has proved invaluable.
BIOS has maintained the longest-running time-series on seawater chemistry, biology and physics – going back more than 60 years – which illustrates how climate change is affecting the ocean. And for three decades it has collaborated with the island’s reinsurers, providing them with the data and expertise that have enabled them to incorporate cutting-edge science into their underwriting.
Dr William Curry, President and Chief Executive Officer of BIOS, says: “In Bermuda there’s a natural alliance between the interests of the reinsurance companies and the type of science BIOS either does here, or has access to globally, in order to provide the realistic understanding of what the risks are. The benefit of Bermuda is that in close proximity, you’ve got a very good research institution producing climate records of great value and one of the biggest bases of reinsurance industry capital on the planet.”
The benefit of Bermuda is that in close proximity, you’ve got a very good research institution producing climate records of great value and one of the biggest bases of reinsurance industry capital on the planet.
The relationship between science and the island’s flagship industry dates back to the 1990s when insurers were taken by surprise by the scale and cost of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Andrew in Florida. Eight US insurers were rendered insolvent by the barrage of claims. “The insurance industry realised it didn’t have a good handle on the risk from hurricanes and changing climate,” Dr Curry says.
A wave of new reinsurers, including RenaissanceRe and PartnerRe, set up in Bermuda. With them came a more scientific approach to insuring against storm losses, including sophisticated catastrophe models. Reinsurers started working with BIOS scientists in a partnership known as the Risk Prediction Initiative (RPI) to develop a more rational understanding of oceans, hurricane formation and how to set rates.
“That went on quite successfully for many years – so successfully that many of the major companies set up their own in-house climate science units to be able to reproduce what RPI had done for them over the years,” Dr Curry said.
“Because of that, RPI is in a transitional phase right now and we’re working with the Government and interested insurance groups to stay involved in the climate risk initiatives that are being put together on island.
“We’re also working with universities to make sure there are properly trained people in insurance and finance who understand climate risk for their insurance products and investment strategies.”
BIOS, a US marine science institution, located in Ferry Reach, St George’s, employs some 60 people as faculty and staff, most who are island residents and half who are Bermudians. In a typical year, the Institute hosts about 600 high school and university-level international students. Annually, about 800 Bermudian schoolchildren visit the campus to learn about a range of topics, from coral reefs to ocean robotics. During their visits, students may go offshore in a BIOS-operated boat, learn about the Institute’s fleet of undersea gliders, or board the 170-foot research vessel Atlantic Explorer.
Dr Curry has led BIOS since 2012, having previously served as a senior scientist in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the world-renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he was also Director of the Ocean and Climate Change Institute.
BIOS was founded in 1903 as the Bermuda Biological Station for Research. In the 1920s, the US National Academy of Sciences sought a North Atlantic location for a station to study open-ocean processes. Bermuda was chosen, as open-ocean conditions exist just two miles offshore and the bio station became BIOS. The longevity of BIOS’s research has proved invaluable to knowledge of climate change’s impact on the ocean.
“Climate change is a really slow process – the longer you measure it, the clearer it becomes that it’s really happening. BIOS has been sending a ship out almost every two weeks since 1954 and has produced the longest records of changing ocean conditions on the planet. Its major role is in convincing people that it’s really happening and that we really should take it seriously.
BIOS has been sending a ship out almost every two weeks since 1954 and has produced the longest records of changing ocean conditions on the planet. Its major role is in convincing people that it’s really happening and that we really should take it seriously.
“We make all the data publicly available in US national and international databases so that it’s freely available to any stakeholder to look at and work with.”
The data show the impact of an atmosphere warmed by increasing levels of carbon dioxide. Warmer air means greater evaporation from the ocean, leaving surface conditions warmer and saltier. “These two things combined are changing the environment, very slowly, but easily measurable and continuously observed, since we started doing it 1954,” Dr Curry said. BIOS is also detecting a slight acidification of the surface ocean. “When CO2 enters the ocean it turns into a weak acid and it’s lowering the pH of the sea ever so slowly.”
In November this year, COP26, the UN Climate Change Summit, will be held in Scotland and BIOS will help with Bermuda’s input. “Bermuda, its government and some of its non-governmental groups are working together with other UK Overseas Territories in order to provide a united front of items they think need to be addressed better,” Dr Curry says. “BIOS is working with the local groups to provide any of the scientific advice they may need.”
The health of corals in many parts of the world has suffered from the effects of warmer waters. Less so in Bermuda, which located at 32 degrees latitude has the largest coral reef structure so far from the Equator, Dr Curry says. “Because they live in Bermuda, which has a large year-round seasonal temperature range, the corals have a slightly wider range of temperature tolerance than corals in other locations.”
The Sargasso Sea
The Sargasso Sea, the body of water that surrounds Bermuda, bordered to the north and the west by the Gulf Stream, has significance far beyond the island, Dr Curry says. “Many countries depend on the Sargasso for their food resources. It’s of major importance for the countries surrounding the North Atlantic.”
In 2014, the Sargasso Sea Alliance was formed by several countries around the North Atlantic to conserve this environment when they signed the Hamilton Declaration. Their work led to the founding of the Sargasso Sea Commission, a legal entity established by Bermudian and US law.
“It’s strictly voluntary, but it’s a group of people working together to try to coordinate country and international activities, sometimes through the United Nations, to conserve and protect the Sargasso Sea,” Dr Curry says. BIOS supports the initiative by providing science-based recommendations on how to protect the Sargasso.
In recognition that conserving the marine environment goes hand in hand with nurturing the ocean’s economic and social value, BIOS is also part of the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme — a partnership that also involves the Government of Bermuda and the Waitt Institute. The aim is “to foster the sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable use of ocean resources for present and future generations.” Key focuses are fisheries, ocean renewable energy and blue tourism.
Dr Curry sees Blue Economy opportunities, particularly in clean energy. “Strategically placed offshore wind turbines could really benefit Bermuda,” he says. “Also, ecotourism will only grow. If Bermuda’s very healthy coral reef system remains that way, it will be a draw for scuba divers and eco-tourists.”
BIOS impact and future
BIOS has enriched local scientific talent over the years. In the 1970s, it began research internships for eight to ten young Bermudians each year. Among those who have come through it are Dr Mark Guishard, Director of the Bermuda Weather Service; David Kendall, Director of the Department of Health; and several physicians at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. “It’s a very successful programme and we’re proud of the impact it’s had,” Dr Curry says.
BIOS conducts much of its work with its research vessel Atlantic Explorer. The ship spends almost half the year at sea and has travelled as far as the Labrador Sea near Greenland, though it usually stays closer to home.
Dr Curry sees technology playing an increasing role in the monitoring of the ocean in the years ahead. Autonomous robotic instrumentation is already being tested and utilised in the waters around Bermuda, either by BIOS or offshore groups being hosted by BIOS.
“I can imagine a time, in 20 or 30 years, in which the ocean is being constantly measured by small robots that are ‘talking’ to satellites and sending in real-time updates, as our small fleet of BIOS gliders does now, primarily in the Saragasso Sea” Dr Curry says. “Sometimes we refer to it as the ‘wired ocean’ – it’s like the internet of things, but at sea and underwater.”
Whatever research tools are used, BIOS looks set to remain at the forefront of ocean science where it has been for a century.