Scientists to study risks of ocean acidification to Scotland’s corals

With the oceans warming and moving towards acidity, will Scotland’s cold-water corals die out within a hundred years, as some predict, or do they have the capacity to adapt and survive?

These are the key questions facing a team of international scientists about to set off on a month-long research voyage in the waters around Scotland using the latest robotic submersible technology. The researchers will be aboard the Natural Environment Research Council’s Royal Research Ship James Cook.

The ‘Changing Oceans’ expedition is part of the £12m UK Ocean Acidification (UKOA) research programme jointly funded by NERC, the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Environment, Fisheries & Rural Affairs (Defra).

It will study how these unique deep sea ecosystems function, how they may be affected by changes in sea temperature and ocean chemistry, and provide new information on how they might best be protected into the future.

Stewart Stevenson, Scotland’s Minister for Environment & Climate Change, said, “The Changing Oceans expedition will help us understand how these ancient ecosystems function, which is vital information for a sound scientific basis for their future conservation.

“It’s less than ten years since the discovery of the Mingulay coral reefs by a team also led by Professor Roberts. Since then, understanding of this marine ecosystem has developed considerably.

“It is also very encouraging to see that the voyage is allowing school pupils first-hand experience of the amazing ecosystems in our offshore waters, and the opportunity to share this understanding with other pupils around the country.”

At the start of the voyage schoolchildren from Sgoil Lionacleit in Benbecula will visit the ship to watch the expedition’s robotic submarines explore the deep sea coral reefs growing on the Hebridean seabed. The team will also be working with the pupils and educational specialists from ‘Our Dynamic Earth’ in Edinburgh to develop environmental workshop materials for use in schools around Scotland.

The research:

Expedition leader Murray Roberts, Professor of Marine Biology at Heriot-Watt University, said, “For Scotland’s coral reefs the key questions are: will these changes in sea water chemistry make it impossible for the corals to grow, or can they somehow adapt to changing conditions and survive?

“Over the past 100 years, human activities including the burning of oil, coal and gas have increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, causing the oceans to become warmer and lower in pH. For cold-water corals, these changes mean that they may start to grow slower, need more food to survive, and may not even be able to grow in some areas. There may also be changes in how much food is available, as the whole marine food web is likely to be altered, unpredictably, in a future, warmer, lower pH ocean.

“We need to learn more about how these corals will react to the changes, by studying how they survive now, and by doing laboratory experiments to see how they respond to different conditions. There are also a myriad of other animals and microorganisms which live on and around these coral reefs – we will be examining how these creatures will be affected by changes in their environment.

“Our work will also characterise the carbonate chemistry and environmental conditions surrounding the reef areas, and map the seabed. We will also collect cores of the seabed that can take us back thousands of years in time.”

In a month-long sea voyage the Changing Oceans team will visit a number of key sites in UK, Irish and international waters, using remote-controlled underwater vehicles to film ecosystems like cold-water coral reefs and deep-sea sponge grounds.

The team plans to visit several sites, including the shallow reefs off Mingulay, and the deeper reefs on Rockall Bank and the Logachev Mounds. The scientists will also conduct seabed experiments and collect samples which will be transported in large specialised sea water tanks for further study in the lab.

They will also be covering details of the voyage, the research and their findings on the Changing Oceans blog.

Long-term educational outreach:

Some pupils from Sgoil Lionacleit in Benbecula will have the opportunity to visit the RRS James Cook at sea, watch how the team operates and see with their own eyes the amazing views of their sub-sea neighbourhood being fed back from underwater vehicles.

Then, in a long-term project, being run in conjunction with Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, they will also study the needs of the different stakeholders likely to be affected by the impacts of climate change on the marine environment. As part of this, the team, including the children themselves, will develop educational tools for workshops on such conservation issues for use in schools throughout Scotland.

Dr Christine Angus, Education Manager at Our Dynamic Earth, said, “We are delighted to be working with the science team on the Changing Oceans expedition.”

Professor Murray Roberts said, “It’s the upcoming generations who are going to be the custodians of the natural world. This is an opportunity for young people to see with their own eyes the amazing underwater habitats that exist on their own doorstep.”

Further information

NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411727 or 411561
Mob: 07917 086369 or 557215

Caroline Dempster
Press Officer
Heriot-Watt University
Tel: 0131 451 3443

Notes

1. The RSS James Cook cruise Changing Oceans expedition is funded by the UK Ocean Acidification (UKOA) research programme as part of the Benthic Consortium research project. The UKOA programme is a collaborative venture between the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Department for Environment, Fisheries & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC).

2. The UKOA programme has three overall aims:

  • To reduce uncertainties in predictions of carbonate chemistry changes and their effects on marine biogeochemistry, ecosystems and other components of the Earth system.
  • To understand the responses to ocean acidification, and other climate change related stressors, by marine organisms, biodiversity and ecosystems and to improve understanding of their resistance or susceptibility to acidification.
  • To provide data and effective advice to policy makers and managers of marine bioresources on the potential size and timescale of risks, to allow for development of appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The outputs of this programme will feed into the cross-government Climate Change Adaptation programme and it is anticipated that this programme will make a significant contribution to the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) programme.

3. The programme will take advantage of international collaboration opportunities, primarily with the German ocean acidification programme (BIOACID), the Mediterranean programme (MedSeA) and potentially with the emerging US ocean acidification research programme.

4. The Changing Oceans expedition includes scientists from four countries: the UK (Heriot-Watt University, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Cefas, University of Hull, National Oceanography Centre, University of Glasgow, University of Aberdeen), Spain (Instituto Español de Oceanografía), Germany (GEOMAR) and the USA (Fish & Wildlife Service), with the deep-sea remotely operated vehicle supplied by the Irish Marine Institute.

Natural Environment Research Council, 15 May 2012. Press release.


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