Digital twin projects to transform environmental science

Five innovative projects launched today will harness the potential of digital twinning technology to transform environmental science.

The projects will share a total of £2.8 million in funding delivered by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), in partnership with the Met Office, as part of the Twinning Capability for the Natural Environment (TWINE) programme.

The digital twin pilot projects will demonstrate how research using Earth observation data and emerging digital twinning technologies can transform environmental science across priority areas including climate change, biodiversity and ecosystems, and natural hazards.

Digital twinning

A digital twin is a dynamic virtual copy of a physical asset, process, system or environment that looks like and behaves in real time identically to its real-world partner. Actions and events can be modelled with unprecedented accuracy, offering the ability to experiment in a non-live environment of the real world.

The five projects are led by scientists at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, National Oceanography Centre, University of Cambridge, University of Hull and University of Plymouth. They will develop digital twins in:

  • coastal ocean ecosystems for assimilation to marine system models
  • ocean glider observations for ocean models which underpin weather forecasts
  • the operational flights of a research aircraft
  • water-related hazard forecasting in Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire
  • a wave overtopping to produce a warning tool for wave hazards

The projects will last a maximum duration of 15 months.

TWINE programme

The TWINE programme is part of a £200 million portfolio of 17 Earth observation investment package (EOIP) projects which were announced in November 2022.

The aims of the TWINE programme and the successful projects collectively are to:

  • harness the UK’s leading position at the nexus of environmental, observational and computational sciences, and bring together multidisciplinary teams to realise the value of digital twinning technology to address environmental challenges
  • improve the understanding, modelling and prediction of events, inform future decision-making, and test the impacts of different scenarios and interventions to help make better decisions on improving our environment
  • build the foundations of a coherent and lasting landscape of digital twins for environmental science, with a high level of cross-fertilisation of learning and a focus on design for interoperability with current and future activities

Realising the value of digital twinning technology

Professor Peter Liss, Interim Executive Chair of NERC said:

Developing digital twins for environmental science is important to improve our ability to anticipate and respond to crises including in climate change, biodiversity and future weather events.

These five projects will bring together multidisciplinary teams to realise the value of digital twinning technology. It is excellent to form a partnership with the Met Office to address this research challenge and ensure that the UK reaches its potential in this area.

Met Office Chief Scientist, Professor Stephen Belcher said:

Our earth and global communities are facing a multitude of challenges from increasing climate change impacts, biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline and threats from natural disasters. The rapidly-emerging technology of digital twins is developing at just the right time, and in partnership with the Met Office, these projects will help society understand how these threats interact and how best to mitigate them.

Further information

The successful projects

Synchronising Earth observation and modelling frameworks towards a digital twin ocean (SyncED-Ocean)

Led by Matthew Palmer, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

This project will deliver a digital twin pilot demonstrator that combines data from satellite Earth observations and marine autonomous robots for assimilation to marine system models to provide an optimised virtual coastal ocean ecosystem.

It will focus on significantly improving the current predictive capability of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and their subsequent impacts on ocean oxygen concentration in UK coastal areas. Both of which present serious risk to ocean health, biodiversity and productivity.

The demonstrator utilises artificial intelligence techniques to couple real and virtual systems to create an agile, adaptive digital twin framework. This framework can be used to support future research, policy and commercial applications that seek to improve understanding and the management of our natural environment.


Led by Justin Buck, National Oceanography Centre

This project will develop a digital twin to optimise ocean glider observations to maximise their impact on ocean models, which underpin NERC research priorities and weather forecasts. The demonstrator digital twin will combine Earth observations with sub-surface ocean glider data and operational ocean models.

The resulting four-dimensional picture, which will presented within a user interface, will allow scientists to plan ocean glider observations to maximise utility. This feedback between scientists, Earth observation data and glider operations in near real-time will maximise the value of the observations collected and their impact on ocean forecasting along with NERC research.

Virtual integration of satellite and in-situ observation networks (VISION)

Led by Nathan Luke Abraham, National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Cambridge

This project will deliver a toolkit and novel visualisations that will allow for better integration of models and observations to enhance our confidence in future climate projections. It will also develop a digital twin to improve the operational flights of the FAAM Airborne Laboratory atmospheric research aircraft.

The aim is to improve the flight plans to better match the scientific aims and also to reduce the number of flights necessary to achieve those aims.

It will bring together a team of atmospheric modellers, scientists, software engineers and satellite experts to deliver a novel framework to reduce the carbon footprint of the UK research aircraft.


Led by Tom Coulthard, University of Hull

This project will build a digital twin for water-related hazard forecasting and decision-making for Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire, a region heavily impacted by hydrometeorological hazards such as flooding.

Water related hazards pose both direct and indirect impacts such as damage to buildings and crops, businesses, loss of livelihoods and human health impacts. A digital twin for flooding will allow stakeholders to try out different management methods and conduct scenario analysis.

The novel approach is to co-produce the digital twin in collaboration with multisectoral end users, as well as engage with one of the more complex environmental ecosystems (hydrology and flooding) in terms of data integration and the physical processes involved.

SPLASH: digital approaches to predict wave hazards

Led by Nieves Valiente, University of Plymouth

This project will create a digital twin of a wave overtopping in order to build a deployable coastal warning tool that predicts wave hazards.

It will establish a method to analyse coastal wave fields from Earth observations alongside unique measurements of wave overtopping. This allows us to better understand how processes such as wind, tides, coastal sheltering and swells interact across an area to change the coastal wave hazard. The project will also use projections to assess future changes in wave hazard frequency.

The ultimate aim is to transform weather and climate research and improve operational hazard management to increase UK resilience.

Top image:  Credit: Tetiana Tanasiichuk, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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