Acid test for threatened seas

Researchers delving into effects of climate change on marine ecosystems can dip into £11 million scheme. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 11, 2009

Funding of £11 million is up for grabs for research into the effects of ocean acidification.

Details of the five-year government-funded programme were announced last week amid growing concern about the effect that "the other carbon dioxide problem" could have on sea life and the food chain.

Ocean acidification occurs because of climate change - as levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide rise, more CO2 dissolves into the oceans, increasing acidity levels.

The irreversible effects are potentially devastating. They include corroded coral reefs and decreased marine biodiversity, which could lead to significant problems for global food production and world economies.

The new programme represents a growing awareness of the problem among funders since it first came to prominence a few years ago.

It is the first UK programme dedicated solely to answering scientific questions about the effects of ocean acidification, with the specific aim of informing policymakers.

And it comes as scientists ratchet up political pressure on the issue.

On the agenda

Led by the Royal Society, scientific academies from around the world earlier this month called on global leaders to recognise the direct threats posed by ocean acidification more explicitly and to ensure that the issue was not left off the agenda of the United Nations climate change conference due to take place in Copenhagen in December.

The conference will seek agreement from nations on carbon-emission reduction targets.

"Everybody knows that the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to climate change. But it has another environmental effect - ocean acidification - which hasn't received much political attention," said Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society. He added that the problem represented a potential "underwater catastrophe".

The new research, which falls under the umbrella of the £1 billion Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) programme, is being funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The money is part of £100 million invested in LWEC to date.

Carol Turley, an expert in the field from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, led the call's design.

She said that since the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of the oceans had on average increased by 30 per cent. "We know ocean acidification is happening ... The uncertainty is the impact on organisms and predicting what will happen in the future. This (programme) is to get the evidence base for key policy decisions," she said.

Under the call, about £8 million will fund scientific work, with the remainder covering the costs of research cruises, data storage and administration and management. Collaboration between different sets of researchers will be encouraged, as will links with European programmes on the topic.

The call is specific about the areas of research to be funded, outlining seven topics that researchers can bid for, with one successful bidder in each area.

A cycle of uncertainty

Receiving the largest slice of the cash - £3 million - is work to understand how ocean acidification affects both plankton and the biogeochemical processes influencing the carbon cycle, which in turn feed back into controlling the climate.

"The cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous by the organisms in the oceans is a really important part of the Earth's system," Dr Turley said.

"We have no idea what the effect of ocean acidification will be on that, so we need to find out."

Studies on the impact of ocean acidification on benthic species (found on the ocean bed) will receive the second largest tranche of cash - about £2 million.

There is also money available to gather scientific data on what ocean acidification may mean for the production of commercially important species, from fish to mussels, oysters and lobsters.

"It is how (ocean acidification) affects the things we eat," Dr Turley said.

Bids are also sought from researchers who want to look back at events in the history of the Earth to help make future predictions.

"We can learn from how the oceans and their biology recovered, or didn't, from events in the past. It is helping modellers who are trying to predict the future."

Further funding is being dedicated to developing global and regional models of the ecosystem that can pull together all the scientific information.

There is also money for improving estimates of ocean carbon dioxide uptake and the associated acidification.

"We need to improve our estimates of what is happening," Dr Turley explained.

A final research area concerns improving the capacity and quality of the carbonate chemistry measurements.

"We need to measure the carbon system well so that the biologists don't waste their time doing things that aren't accurate enough," Dr Turley said.

The closing date for outline bids is 23 July. For more information, visit

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