Dr Murray Roberts: Chilling threat being posed to our deep-sea wonders

Scotland’s cold water corals are one of the world’s great natural treasures, says Dr Murray Roberts

Cold-water corals provide a rich habitat for other forms of marine life, and archive thousands of years’ worth of information on climate change, but they’re under threat from fishing, mining and, ironically, climate change itself.

Think of corals and what springs to mind? Island paradises in clear blue waters? Palm trees, sandy beaches and luxurious holidays in the Caribbean? All true, but corals aren’t only found in the tropics. In fact, there are more coral species in deep, cold-water waters than on shallow, tropical reefs. And it’s these cold-water corals in the North Atlantic that my research team at Heriot-Watt University studies. It’s fascinating and frustrating work. With almost every survey comes evidence that human activities have damaged deep-sea habitats and the spectres of global warming and ocean acidification may completely alter the present balance of ocean ecosystems, with huge implications for marine life and the people it supports.

Perhaps the most insidious threat to cold-water corals, however, comes from our addiction to fossil fuels. Approximately a third of the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has dissolved in the oceans. Without this, global warming would be more severe. But the payback is ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide dissolved in water produces carbonic acid, and it’s this process that is gradually acidifying the oceans. Any marine life that produces limestone skeletons – including corals, molluscs and plankton – faces an uncertain future in an increasingly acidic ocean.

At Heriot-Watt we are tackling these issues through the university’s environment and climate change theme and with a recently awarded research grant from the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme. Work began last year as we developed new laboratory systems to mimic predicted future levels of acidification. This summer we head off to the Mingulay reefs to begin our studies in earnest, with another expedition planned to Rockall Bank in 2012. But corals grow slowly – it will take us the best part of three years to complete our experiments.

Dr Murray Roberts, NEWS.scotsman.com, 7 March 2011. Full article.

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