School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Professor Andrew Green (front, third from left) with a class of geology students at UKZN.


Professor of Marine Geology at UKZN, Andrew Green, called for more support to grow the field of marine geosciences in South Africa as global attention turned to the waters covering 70% of the planet’s surface on World Oceans Day on 8 June.

Home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity and the source of 50% of its oxygen, as well as food and medicine, this critical part of the biosphere is facing severe degradation, with 90% of big fish populations depleted and 50% of coral reefs destroyed.

World Oceans Day celebrates the role of the oceans and inspires action to protect and sustainably use marine resources, highlighting the need for more sustainable use of the oceans, as humans are taking more from them than can be replenished.

Green, who received the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Special Annual Theme Award: Ocean Science for Sustainable Development in 2023, said that marine geology is the fundamental basis for expanding knowledge of marine ecology or oceanography.

With oceans facing increasing threats, including a boom in seabed mining, marine geology is gaining traction as a field of study in South Africa. It is one of the main means to contribute to an enhanced understanding of this environment and is key to informing sustainable ocean management.

Still a small field in South Africa, marine geology is advancing at UKZN. Green heads up the Marine Geology Research Unit that aims to mobilise more staff and resources to train students to work at the forefront of a burgeoning blue economy. South Africa is catching up with coastal geological mapping and managing marine natural resources and mineral wealth, but it requires more infrastructure.

Progress is important as marine geology also contributes to a better understanding of past climatic conditions by examining seabed sediment records, which improves knowledge of what could happen under changing climate conditions and rising sea levels. Green and international colleagues researched the correlation between storminess in the southwest Indian Ocean and increasing ocean surface temperatures; their findings were incorporated into cooperative governance planning at the local and provincial levels and prompted dialogue with agencies in Mozambique, Tanzania, and countries beyond Africa.

Contributing to growing this field has been a career highlight for Green, a visiting Professor at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. His ground-breaking research changed our understanding of how sea level rise affects coastal dunes and barrier islands, informing global policy on whether to withdraw from or defend against rising sea levels.

Green’s NSTF-South32 award for excellence in marine geoscience research honours the United Nations-proclaimed Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development from 2021 to 2030. It recognises his holistic approach to examining coastal and shelf geomorphology and sedimentology and collaboration with diverse students. It provides access to complex and expensive geophysical equipment and software, imparts knowledge, and researches a comparatively poorly studied field.

South Africa’s deep sea is still greatly under-researched; remedying this will require increased funding, diverse research training, improved technology and infrastructure, integration of traditional knowledge systems, and enhanced governance arrangements and mandates in fisheries and ocean research and management.

The Horizon 2020 iAtlantic and Mission Atlantic Projects and the Challenger 150 initiatives have bolstered local capacity development. In tandem, the Council for Geoscience’s Marine Geoscience Programme aims to map the ocean floor around the country in detail, aligning with the government’s Operation Phakisa initiative as part of the National Development Plan. The programme’s state-of-the-art research methods are strengthened by international networks and align with global marine geophysics and hydrography standards to ensure sustainable utilisation of living and mineral resources.

South Africa’s location between two oceans and proximity to Antarctica make it a strategic site for ocean science. However, more collaboration among researchers, government, and international organisations is necessary to improve our understanding of biodiversity, ecosystems, and vulnerabilities, especially given South Africa’s expansion of offshore activities, including seabed mining, fisheries, and deep-sea oil and gas sequestration.

Green has continued contributing to Ocean Science for Sustainable Development discussions, including with the NSTF. He continues to situate UKZN as a global centre of excellence in marine geology, particularly for furthering African marine geology and advocating for South African excellence in ocean sciences. He has also been honoured by the American Geophysical Union with the Africa Award for Ocean Sciences.


Words:  Christine Cuénod

Photograph:  Supplied.