NERC scientists lead major UN report on ocean acidification

8 October 2014

NERC-funded scientists have contributed to a major new international report showing unequivocally that ocean acidification will have significant consequences for marine life, and in turn human society.

Cold water coral

Cold water coral

While the lowering pH of the ocean has been an unavoidable chemical response to rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, how it will affect life in the ocean hasn't been clear.

But a recent report published by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was developed by an international team of thirty experts led by UK researchers with support by NERC, Defra and DECC, has concluded that ocean acidification is already underway and is an issue of serious environmental and policy concern.

The report, drawing on recent literature and titled 'An updated synthesis of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity', shows beyond doubt that ocean acidification will worsen, causing widespread changes, mostly deleterious, to marine organisms and ecosystems, and on the goods and services they provide.

While the exact magnitude of the ecological and financial costs is still uncertain, due to complex interactions with other human-driven environmental changes, the risk to coral reefs, highlighted in the report, could cause economic damage nearing a trillion dollars a year.

In the tropics, these habitats help support the livelihoods of around 400 million people, while in European seas, cold-water corals have high conservation value and provide nursery grounds for endangered species, like deep-sea sharks, and commercial fish.

Microscopic marine fossils show that global-scale ocean acidification has occurred before, but human activities now are directly causing additional physical, chemical and biological changes - at speeds unprecedented for at least 66 million years.

The report draws on modelling, laboratory and field studies by the £12m UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA), co-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).

Through the UKOA programme, NERC and its partners are gaining an understanding of how marine life is responding to the challenges ocean acidification presents, and in turn the research is helping NERC to find solutions to make the ocean, and the economy around it, more resilient.

NERC's Dr Phil Williamson, the science coordinator of the UKOA research programme, and co-editor of the report said:

A key feature of the CBD synthesis is that it acknowledges the complexity of biological responses to ocean acidification. Changes in ocean chemistry interact with other stressors, and we now know the importance of such factors as experiment length, temperature, and food supply in determining physiological and behavioural responses.

Dr Sebastian Hennige, lead editor of the report said:

Our work at Heriot-Watt University and in the north-east Atlantic has given us a much better appreciation of the vulnerability of cold-water corals.

There is a risk that their habitat will literally dissolve away, since living corals grow on structures made by their dead ancestors. These structures will be subject to chemical erosion over very large ocean areas if current trends continue.

Professor Murray Roberts, co-editor of the report and director of Heriot-Watt University's Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology said:

At the end of the day, the only way to deal with ocean acidification is to reduce CO2 emissions. But for this to happen people first need to be aware that ocean acidification is an important issue, and having it high on the CBD agenda is a huge step forward.

Further information

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1. The report 'An updated synthesis of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity' is available online on the CBD website - external link, as Technical Series No 75. The report will be launched on 8 October, when it will be considered in the main session of the 12th CBD Conference of the Parties, Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea. It will also be discussed at a Conference side-event on 8 October organised by the CBD Secretariat, with presentations by report authors, Drs Sebastian Hennige (Heriot-Watt University) and Carol Turley (Plymouth Marine Laboratory).

2. The CBD report was subject to extensive peer review, with a near-final draft scrutinised by the 18th meeting of the CBD's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice at Montreal in June. That body recommended that the report should be brought to wider attention, including referral to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, on account of the very close linkage between the future severity of ocean acidification and the global success (or failure) in reducing CO2 emissions.

3. The report is edited by S Hennige, JM Roberts and P Williamson, with 27 co-authors from 8 countries. Preparation of the report was supported by the UK government, primarily through the UK Ocean Acidification research programme.

4. The UK Ocean Acidification research programme (UKOA) - external link is a £12m, five year research programme 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). UKOA outputs feed into the cross-government Climate Change Adaptation programme and the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) programme.

5. UKOA international links and partnerships include those with the German BIOACID programme; the European research project MedSeA; the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Ocean Acidification Program; the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre; and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

Press release: 27/14