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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Expertise recognised in major grant award

Published: 22 June 2010

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 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:

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 of the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science, based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
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 of the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science, based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), uniquely, is leading two of the programme’s six projects as well as contributing to two others, a testament to the world class research carried out at PML, and its reputation in the field of ocean acidification studies.

Dr Steve Widdicombe, a Head of Science at PML, is running a team looking at how ocean acidification and global warming will impact upon seabed living organisms and, in turn, how that might affect the way ocean food chains function, and ultimately dictate how we use ocean resources in a sustainable way. One of the questions Dr Widdicombe hopes to answer is whether these plants and animals can adapt to the changes taking place in valuable coastal habitats.

The second group will be working on developing computer models, led by Jerry Blackford, built from the best available knowledge and observations (including UK Met Office future climate scenarios), to understand the magnitude and timescale of any changes through ocean acidification and its better known twin phenomenon of climate change. The project focuses on two regions: the shelf seas of the UK and Europe, which are a very important provider of resources, and Arctic regional seas, which will be the first to show affects.

In addition to the research projects, PML has also been co-ordinating how the knowledge gained from across the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme will be made available to stakeholders, policy makers, other international research programmes, and the public.

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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