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UK science spotlights ocean acidification

21 Mehefin 2010

Microscopic fossilsMicroscopic fossils

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, including Cardiff University. 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 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."

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:

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

. 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

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

Researchers at Cardiff University, led by Professor Paul Pearson, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, will look to our geological past to predict the future impact of acidification on marine life and chemical processes in the ocean.

Cardiff researchers will look back 55 million years ago – the last time that extreme greenhouse conditions existed on Earth. Until now the acidification during these events has not been measured adequately and details of the way marine life was affected have not been fully investigated.

For the first time the geological record from this period, which contains a number of abrupt events where acidification increased rapidly in response to natural emissions (the largest being the Paleocene / Eocene thermal maximum event, 55 million years ago), will be fully investigated.

Professor Pearson’s team will investigate a variety of geological records from the deep sea and the margins of the oceans. This will include studying the remains of microscopic marine life and their response to climate change. Unique among these is a newly recovered borehole through marine sediments in Tanzania. Preliminary work has revealed the presence of a highly expanded record of the onset of the Paleocene / Eocene thermal maximum event with very well-preserved microfossils suitable for new geochemical and biological studies.

Professor Pearson said: "As humanity aims to limit emissions it is vital to predict the effects of acidification on our oceans. We are just beginning this research but using new data and computer models our aim is to estimate seawater acidity and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the period 60-40 millions years ago and look at how nature responded."

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."

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