UK science spotlights ocean acidification

The UK’s first research programme to investigate the impacts of ocean acidification has been launched involving 101 scientists from 21 of the UK’s top scientific institutions. The UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme consists of several projects working together to investigate different aspects of this global issue.

The world’s seas are absorbing high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) mainly produced by human activities, such as fossil fuel burning.

The absorbed CO2 fundamentally changes the chemistry of oceans which results in a rise in ocean acidity.  Since the start of the Industrial Revolution ocean acidity has risen by about 30%.

Ocean acidification is estimated to be currently occurring at a rate faster than has been experienced during the last 20 million years. If CO2 emissions continue to rise and the acidity of the world’s oceans and seas continues to increase at this rate this could have serious consequences for important cycles that drive the climate as well as marine life (e.g. corals, shellfish, algae and the plankton that form the base of the food chain) within this century.

Such impacts could reach far beyond the marine environment, to that of climate, food provision and human health and well-being.

Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries, 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 ecosystem.

“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.”

The need for more knowledge about ocean acidification and how it will impact upon the oceans environmentally, socially and economically is recognised as a key issue, and the six new projects have been designed to answer some of the most pressing questions.

They are 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) under the auspices of the Living with Environmental Change partnership.

Six research projects have now been funded, each delivering a key part of the £12 million UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme, 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

These projects are supported by a national analytical facility led by Professor Eric Achterberg, National Oceanography Centre.

Dr Martin Solan, from the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab, is a task leader examining the effects of ocean acidification on an array of organisms that live in the seabed, including brittlestars, worms and clams.

He said: “Changes in ocean chemistry will not only occur in surface waters, they will also extend to the deepest parts of the ocean, affecting the species that live there and the vital contributions they make to the regulation of global processes.

“Knowing about how ocean acidification affects life on the sea floor around our coasts is important because these systems have a big impact on the rest of the marine ecosystem and, ultimately, on our own well-being.”

Current predictions of the ecological consequences of ocean acidification have relied on short-term studies of species – mainly phytoplankton - that live in oceanic surface waters.

Dr Jasmin Godbold, post-doctoral researcher at Oceanlab, said: “What’s novel about our research is that we will determine, for the first time, the medium to long term consequences of ocean acidification on a range of important bottom dwelling invertebrates.”

These species are an important source of food for fish and play a vital role in recycling nutrients that benefit the food web. The team’s research will have important implications for the conservation of biological resources and habitat.

Dr Godbold added: “Being part of this large interdisciplinary research programme means that we have a real chance of understanding the full consequences of ocean acidification, not only for sediment dwelling organisms, but for our marine systems as a whole.”

NERC 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.”

Professor Robert Watson, Defra’s Chief Science Adviser, 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."