Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 12

Submission from the Challenger Society for Marine Science


  1.  In this submission from the Challenger Society we stress the following items relevant to the questions asked by the Inquiry:

    —  The wide range in predicted global warming (2.5-7.0°C for 750 ppm CO2) is in large part due to lack of understanding of the two-way interactions between the ocean and climate.

    —  There is no UK national strategy for marine sciences and few mechanisms for integrating the activities of the many contributors.

    —  Long-term marine observations are vital but difficult to maintain through lack of continuing funding.

    —  There is concern about the size and viability of the UK research vessel fleet.

    —  The UK should continue to play a leading role in marine science internationally.


  2.  This submission is made by the President of the Challenger Society for Marine Science (CSMS), based on inputs from several members of the society's Council. There was, however, insufficient time to consult with all CSMS members, and their individual views may differ from those provided here.

  3.  The CSMS is a UK-based learned society, founded over a 100 years ago. It currently has about 500 members drawn mainly from the academic and institute marine research communities. Information on its role and activities is given at

  4.  Professor Liss is one of the three independent members of the Inter-Agency Committee for Marine Science and Technology (IACMST) and chairs its Marine Data and Information Partnership (MDIP) and its Marine Environmental Data Action Group (MEDAG). In addition, he recently chaired the IACMST group which reported on "Underwater Sound and Marine Life". He chairs the Royal Society's Global Environmental Research Committee and was a member of the Society's recent Working Group on ocean acidification. He has served on the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and chaired the Scientific Committee of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP).

  5.   This submission is based on the bulleted foci of the inquiry, prefaced by a section covering the Select Committee's interests on how marine science is being used to advance knowledge of the impact of climate change on the ocean.


  6.  Future climate change will undoubtedly affect the ocean, altering temperature, circulation patterns, sea level, ocean acidity and the distribution, abundance and productivity of marine life. However, the ocean will also affect the rate and scale of future climate change. Marine research must cover both aspects.

  7.  The importance of the ocean-climate linkage is shown by the uncertainty range in the global equilibrium temperature rise resulting from CO2 stabilisation at 750 ppm (from 2.5-7.0°C: IPCC 2001; a similar range is understood to be included in IPCC 2007). Whilst even the lower end of the range has severe implications, it could be tolerable; in contrast, the upper end of the range would be disastrous for most life on Earth (except for microbes). It is not possible here to cover all the reasons for these uncertainties in the climate models, but very many involve gaps in our understanding of the ocean—arguably the most important part of the Earth system with regard to climate change. In particular:

    —  The ocean acts as a huge reservoir of heat: there is more heat energy in the top 5m of the sea than in all the atmosphere. This slows the rate at which the atmospheric temperature is rising—but to a poorly determined extent. Warming of the ocean interior increases ocean volume, hence driving sea level rise—probably the most devastating (and unstoppable) single economic consequence of climate change.

    —  Melting of Arctic sea-ice is occurring more rapidly than predicted by current climate models; this has a strong positive feedback (accelerating warming), since seawater absorbs 2-8 times more heat from sunlight than ice.

    —  The ocean is the prime source of water vapour to the atmosphere, driving the whole hydrological cycle—and hence determining the global pattern of floods and droughts. Sea surface conditions are critical in this regard; they depend on ocean circulation as much as local weather, and both are altering as the climate changes.

    —  The ocean also has indirect effects, via chemistry and biology, on the formation of clouds. There are many uncertainties in how the extent and type of clouds will alter as the world warms. For example, a recent paper in Science[9] showed that areas of high marine biological production underlie areas of enhanced cloudiness due to the emission of gases such as dimethyl sulphide and isoprene, formed by biological processes in the upper ocean. Thus, in order to predict future cloud type and coverage we need to know much more about what controls marine biological activity, by phytoplankton, bacteria and other microbes.

    —  As well as emitting climatically-important gases, the ocean is a major "sink" of man-made CO2, taking up 30-40% of what we add to the atmosphere (by burning fossil fuels etc). How this "service" that the ocean provides will change in the future is of critical importance, affecting the urgency—and severity—of policy decisions. We don't yet have detailed answers, but it is likely that enhanced stratification and lowered seawater pH (due to these very CO2 inputs) will negatively affect the ocean's ability to take up CO2.

  8.  The above are only a selection of the poorly-understood ways in which the ocean affects climate and vice versa. They illustrate the many uncertainties- and research problems—involved. Given the serious potential social and economic implications of climate change,[10] it is clearly imperative to narrow the uncertainties in the mutual two-way interaction between the ocean and climate.


  9.  UK marine research is carried out by a wide variety of organisations. These include government departments, agencies and associated bodies (eg Meteorological Office, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Fisheries Research Service (FRS), MoD/QinetiQ), NERC-funded laboratories, university departments and industry—mostly having different funding streams, little coordination between them, and no overall national strategy. Given the magnitude of the tasks outlined above with regard to climate-related research (let alone other aspects of ecosystem dynamics, eg related to fishery management), this would not seem the optimum way to arrange things.

  10.  In the universities, where much of the cutting edge marine research is being done, there is an almost complete lack of national coordination or overall marine science strategy, made worse by NERC's abolition of its marine research grant committee some years ago (noting that NERC is the major funder of university research in this area). There are signs that the recently reconfigured National Oceanography Centre (NOC) at Southampton is now beginning to take on a national leadership role; however, this has not been forthcoming in the past.

  11.  A positive example is "Oceans 2025", the recently approved research programme for NERC marine Centres, where a joined-up, well-coordinated approach is central. However, although this is designed and approved in principle as a five year programme,[11] my understanding is that funding is currently only assured for the first two years.

  12.  IACMST is a forum that is intended to promote coordination between government department and agency research programmes (not the university sector). In my view, it has been only partially successful in this role because the component bodies are primarily focused on their own (policy-driven) research agendas. They are often unwilling to contribute to the bigger picture—which may be more about new research ideas than immediate policy issues.

  13.  However, IACMST has been successful at horizon scanning for new policy-related research areas (eg the effect of sound on marine mammals). It has also run several useful action groups concerned with global observing systems and data issues (MEDAG and MDIP). In particular, MDIP is specifying and designing the data system to support the multi-use of UK marine data ("measure once, use many times" concept), that is directly relevant to marine spatial planning.

  14.  Several other countries appear to have better arrangements for coordination of their marine activities than exist in the UK (eg France, USA). In the UK, there is no equivalent in the marine realm of the operational role the Met. Office plays in basic data gathering, atmospheric forecasting and relevant research (although much oceanography is required for this). The merits of having a UK "Wet" Office might usefully be considered by the Select Committee under this inquiry. The Marine Management Organisation discussed in the Marine Bill Consultation document could form the starting point for such an organisation. An alternative model is the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that has responsibilities for many aspects of both marine and atmospheric affairs.


  15.  UK marine scientists have played, and continue to play, substantial roles in internationally-organised global change programmes relevant to marine research. Further, NERC is currently funding the International Project Offices for three such marine-oriented activities: the World Climate Research Programme's "Climate Variability and Predictability" (CLIVAR, at NOC), and the IGBP's "Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics" (GLOBEC, at Plymouth Marine Laboratory) and "Surface Ocean—Lower Atmosphere Study" (SOLAS, at UEA).

  16.  In addition, NERC funds the Planning Office for the International Polar Year (at British Antarctic Survey), which also covers much oceanographic research, and the European Office for IODP (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program) at Cardiff University.

  17.  Provision of the project offices described in paras 15 and 16 is highly commendable since it gives the UK a strong leadership role in what is planned and executed worldwide, with many benefits to both the UK community as well as to individual scientists who can participate in projects much larger than they or indeed the UK could mount alone.

  18.  In Europe, UK marine scientists also play substantial roles and the EU Framework Programmes provide real opportunities for us to lead and participate in larger marine (field and modelling) studies than national funding alone will allow.

  19.  Funding constraints do, however, limit the involvement of UK scientists in global marine programmes. In the past NERC has been able to devote substantial resources to its science contribution to international projects such as the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) and the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS). The current NERC budget makes it difficult for this to happen at the scale required. For example, although significant funding was awarded for SOLAS work, it was subsequently reduced (due to an overall funding shortfall in NERC), and there are currently no directed funds for national participation in either the CLIVAR, GLOBEC, IMBER (Integrated Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecosystem Research) or GEOTRACES projects. This means that to take part in international activities under these projects, scientists have to individually obtain responsive-mode funding from NERC, a system that makes it very difficult to coordinate UK participation.


  20.  Long-term observational records are a vital part of ocean studies but are often costly and have proved difficult to maintain on a continuing basis. For example, the 75-year survival of the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey has been fortuitous—having been very close to closure on many occasions. The new NERC marine research programme "Oceans 2025" attempts to address this but, as noted above, even that funding is not yet committed beyond the next two years.

  21.  IACMST has developed a list of long-term observational needs. From that list, two examples are:

    —  funding of satellites for marine measurements [noting the many problems a couple of years ago in assembling the UK contribution to the 2nd Joint Air Sea Interaction experiment (Jason) mission]; and

    —  placing the UK's observational programme into ocean CO2 measurements onto a sounder footing (noting that the UK has no programme for making CO2 measurements in the atmosphere!).

  However, it has proved impossible to date to find a funding mechanism for these studies or even a route by which to request new funds, for example via a bid in a Comprehensive Spending Review. Without them we will struggle to quantify changes occurring in the ocean as a result of climate change.

  22.  An issue of concern to many marine researchers is the availability of suitable ocean-going research vessels. A few years ago NERC reduced its general purpose, non-polar fleet by a third and RRS Discovery is now close to the end of its effective life. In the past year, three research cruises (each of ~one month duration, involving 20-25 researchers and a total investment in excess of £1 million) have been either abandoned or postponed for a further year or so due to severe technical problems with this vessel. A new research ship (RRS James Cook) has recently been delivered, to replace RRS Charles Darwin but there has been a gap of nearly a year, resulting in a backlog of nearly 20 approved but unscheduled field-based projects. Replacement of RRS Discovery is, I understand, timetabled for 2012, but in the meanwhile there is greatly reduced capacity. It would seem that this can only be solved by chartering non-UK ocean-going research vessels for at least six months per year (if available), but NERC could not easily find the resources for such action.

  23.  A closely-related problem is the limited availability of research ships for studies in coastal and shelf waters. With the reduction in the NERC fleet and with Cefas and FRS Aberdeen now possessing only one suitable vessel each, we have lost significant capacity for near-shore work. This is arguably as important as open ocean studies for detecting the effects of climate change—for example, changes in river flow, flooding and sea level are likely to deliver more nutrients and sediments to coastal waters, hence affecting planktonic and benthic biodiversity, fishery productivity etc. For these reasons, we need to expand monitoring and research in coastal and shelf waters, the opposite to the present direction of travel.


  24.  Overall the UK currently seems to be viewed from abroad as an exciting and reasonably well-funded place to do research. Thus, recruitment into academic posts in marine science in the university sector is relatively buoyant: senior and more junior appointments of high quality have, and are being, made. There have, however, been retention problems at some institutions and in some key science areas.

  25.  Student recruitment (at both undergraduate and postgraduate, PhD level) into marine sciences suffers from the endemic shortage of students wanting to study science in the UK. However, it would appear that the problem is not as severe in the marine area as in the pure sciences due to the considerable public interest in the subject. Furthermore, it is significantly easier to find excellent students in biology than in physics and mathematics.


  26.  The concept and role of marine Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is inherently different from that on land. Whilst littoral and benthic habitats of particularly high conservation value can be mapped and boundaries drawn, there are still many dependencies and interactions with much larger spatial areas. Enforcing regulation of controls in the marine environment is also more complex, due to the many stakeholder interests, local, regional, national and European/international.

  27.  Fragmentation of research responsibilities in this area (between English, Scottish and Welsh conservation bodies, fishery laboratories and NERC) is acute. The poor science base may not be the only factor responsible for the lack of UK marine SSSIs, but it has certainly contributed to it.

  28.  More ambitious plans for marine reserves and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have been developed overseas, with relevant research effort.[12] Proposals for a nationally-integrated research initiative on sustainable marine bioresources, that could cover the role of MPAs in promoting fishery recovery, have been under discussion between NERC, Defra and the Scottish Executive for several years, but there has been very great difficulty in securing funding for such an initiative, despite its political importance.[13]

January 2007

9   N Meskhide and A Nenes (2006) Phytoplankton and cloudiness in the Southern Ocean. Science 314, 1419-23. Back

10   Stern Review on economics of climate change, HM Treasury, 2006. Online at Back

11   NERC press release, 10 January 2007. Also "Oceans 2025 Overview", online at Back

12   eg J Sobel and C Dahlgren (2004). Marine Reserves: A Guide to Science, Design and Use. Island Press. Back

13   Prime Minister's Strategy Unit (2004). Net Benefits. A sustainable and profitable future for UK fishing. Back

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