Scientists study impact of ocean acidification

Scottish scientists are working with colleagues from around the United Kingdom to investigate the impacts of ocean acidification.

Dr Nick Kamenos of the University of Glasgow is among 101 scientists from around 21 of the UK’s top scientific institutions investigating the effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption on the chemistry of the ocean as part of a £12m Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOARP) project.

The absorption of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as from other human sources, fundamentally increases the acidity of seawater, which in turn has considerable consequences for the life and processes within.

This ‘acidification’ of the ocean is also likely to have significant impacts upon marine biogeochemistry and biodiversity, however, changes could extend beyond this to the whole Earth System via effects on air-sea gas exchange and sedimentation of material through the oceans.

The scale and nature of the effects of ocean acidification are still poorly known and requires substantial research so that society may deal with it effectively.

The £12m, five-year UKOARP is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

As part of this consortium, scientists at the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University are conducting research into how ocean acidification and warming may affect UK marine habitats formed by coralline algae (maerl) and cold-water corals (Lophelia pertusa).

At Glasgow Dr Kamenos will study how ocean acidification will affect maerl, a very slow-growing marine plant that can live for thousands of years and, like corals, provides a habitat to many other marine species.

He said: “We will use an arsenal of new techniques to understand how ocean acidification changes the skeletons formed by the corals and maerl. If we can understand the fine-scale changes in their skeletons we’ll be better equipped to predict how the habitats their form could change in the future.”

Dr J Murray Roberts, at Heriot-Watt University, works on cold-water corals, said: ‘If the ocean acidification projections are correct, waters that have been suitable for cold-water coral growth for many hundreds of thousands of years could become corrosive by the end of the century.

“Cold-water corals produce one of the most biodiversity-rich habitats in the oceans but we’ve barely begun to understand their ecology and importance.”

Work has already begun to set up the new aquaria to keep maerl and corals alive at at the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University.

The research will take three years and involve intense periods of fieldwork on maerl beds and cold-water coral reefs. Researchers will spend at least two months at sea using the UK’s deep-sea remotely operated vehicle ISIS to study the cold-water corals at both Mingulay and Rockall Bank.

Six projects have now been funded, each delivering a key part of the UKOARP, designed to answer the following questions:

• ‘How much variability is there in oceanic CO2 uptake and what are the trends for the future?’ Led by Professor Andrew Watson, University of East Anglia.

• ‘What are the impacts of ocean acidification on key benthic (seabed) ecosystems, communities, habitats, species and their life cycles?’ Led by Dr Stephen Widdicombe, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

• ‘How will ocean acidification affect the biology of surface ocean communities and biogeochemistry, and how that might feedback to climate?’ Led by Dr Toby Tyrrell, National Oceanography Centre

• ‘What are the potential impacts of ocean acidification on the ocean and how it might amplify rising CO2 and climate change?’ Led by Dr Andy Ridgwell, University of Bristol

• ‘How will ocean acidification impact ecosystems and chemical cycling in UK and Arctic regional seas?’ Led by Dr Jerry Blackford, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

• ‘What were the effects of rapid ocean acidification events in the Earth’s past?’ Led by Professor Paul Pearson, Cardiff University

The need for more knowledge about how ocean acidification will progress and how it will impact upon the oceans environmentally, socially and economically is recognised as a key issue across a number of government departments, explained by the Natural Environment Research Council’s Chief Executive, Professor Alan Thorpe said: “Ocean acidification is an important scientific priority in NERC’s Strategy as well as in the recently published UK Marine Science Strategy.

“I am very pleased that we have been able to address this critical science and policy issue with Defra and DECC, as part of the Living With Environmental Change programme. This initiative, one of the first to be funded by any nation, ensures that the UK will remain at the forefront of ocean acidification research.”

The Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government commented: “Ocean acidification may be a relatively recently identified phenomenon but its potential impact is likely to have wide ramifications through the ocean. We need to understand how much of a problem it might be, how quickly we will start to feel its effects and how we might mitigate any impacts.

“The UK has been at the forefront of ocean acidification research and this Programme will ensure the excellent work continues. By following a multi-disciplinary approach, looking at a range of aspects of ocean acidification, we can bring together scientists across disciplines in order to gain as complete a picture of how the ocean will react to increasing acidity and how its diverse life forms will cope or adapt in the future.”

Minister for the Marine Environment, Richard Benyon, said: “The effects of climate change on land have been well documented yet we are only just beginning to explore the damage that rising CO2 levels could have on our marine ecosystems.”

“The UK is the world leader in marine science and it is projects such as this that will help us understand the effects of ocean acidification on the world’s seas and oceans.

“This research programme is vital to help us meet the challenges ocean acidification presents.”

Further information: University of Glasgow press office on 0141 330 3535 or Dr Nick Kamenos on, 0141 330 5443.

• The £12M, 5 year UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs (Defra) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Outputs from the programme will feed into the cross Government Climate Change Adaptation programme and it is anticipated that it will make a significant contribution to the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) programme. The UK programme will collaborate with international colleagues – primarily with the German BIOACID programme, the European research programme EPOCA, and the emerging US Ocean Acidification research programme.

• Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are increasing as a result of human activity, and are likely to continue to do so in the future, although the future levels of CO2 are uncertain. In response to this rise, the oceans are taking up more CO2 and becoming more acidic.

• It is likely that large areas of the ocean could become under-saturated with respect to at least aragonite (one of two common forms of biologically produced calcium carbonate) within this century. Under such conditions, organisms creating aragonite skeletons or shells, such as shellfish and corals, face serious challenges, while many other organisms are likely to face threats at various stages of their life histories.

University of Glasgow, 16 June 2010. Article.

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