Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 22

Submission from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

THE SOUTHERN OCEAN: THE VITAL ROLE OF THE BRITISH ANTARCTIC SURVEY

Introduction

  1.  The Southern Ocean is of global importance. It regulates the temperature of all the world's oceans and contains unique marine living resources. To deliver UK-relevant science on these topics, the British Antarctic Survey cooperates with other national and international programmes to tackle pressing scientific problems related to global climate change and exploitation of biological resources. The Committee's attention is drawn to the world-class scientific contribution made by the UK, the mechanisms employed to deliver credible scientific advice to HMG for foreign and domestic policy, and the capacity and value for money provided by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in undertaking Southern Ocean research. This document describes why and how the UK should continue to develop Southern Ocean science into the future.

  2.  The importance and value of the Southern Ocean to the UK motivates the British Antarctic Survey's research on climate change and the Antarctic marine system. The increasing pace of environmental change means there is greater need than ever for investment in this research and for long-term monitoring of this marine system. For the UK to continue to project excellent science into the Southern Ocean, provide reliable scientific evidence for policy makers and lead scientific, commercial and political affairs in the region it must be recognised that:

    —    Southern Ocean research is interdisciplinary by nature and best undertaken by an organisation like BAS, where the essential disciplines in marine science are housed together;

    —    Continuity is vital. BAS has a strong and unique record of research and long-term monitoring in the Southern Ocean and this must continue for the UK to maintain its leading role in the region;

    —    Issues are moving rapidly in the Southern Ocean and the UK must be poised to exploit scientific opportunities. For example we are entering a new phase of exploitation of Antarctic krill (Hansard 15 January 2007: Column 508) which must be managed on the basis of sound scientific evidence that BAS will provide.

  3.  This paper should be read with those from the Natural Environment Research Council and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since they are closely linked. This paper also contains evidence that is related to written evidence provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry on trade, development and environment.

Background

  4.  The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica seems remote but is highly relevant politically, socially and economically to the UK. It is a critical cooling element in the oceanic thermohaline circulation system, refrigerating 40% of the world's oceans and regulating regional and global climate. The Southern Ocean contains probably the largest unexploited marine protein resource. It also has fragile ecosystems and exceptional biological diversity that, because of its isolation, is unique on the planet. Yet, as the global climate changes, so does the Southern Ocean. It is the location of one of the world's fastest warming regions—the seas around the Antarctic Peninsula—and change here is attributable to the effects of human activity. It encircles Antarctica, the coldest continent and the largest reservoir of ice in the world, which, if it were all to melt, would raise sea level by up to 60 metres.

  5.  There has already been extensive environmental change in the Southern Ocean and more is expected:

    —    Surface water temperature in the vicinity of the Antarctic Peninsula has increased by more than 1°C over the last five decades and continues to rise.

    —    There have been profound impacts on the marine system including a probable 80% decrease in the amount of Antarctic krill in the last three decades—this is a critical food source for whales, seals, penguins and albatrosses as well as for some commercially exploited species of fish.

    —    There have been major changes in the balance of top predators over the last 200 years due to sealing, whaling and fishing.

    —    The Antarctic krill fishery targets resources with potential to provide high quality protein and high-value nutritional supplements for human consumption and feed for aquaculture. However, unless the krill fishery is managed on the basis of sound scientific advice there is potential for massive damage to the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

    —    Many Antarctic marine species, especially the "cold blooded" ectotherms, are physiologically and genetically unique. This makes them especially vulnerable to environmental change—it has been shown that many are unable to tolerate a temperature increase of only 2°C. Studying them is of wider relevance as species elsewhere also have to adapt to a warmer world.

International perspective

  6.  The Southern Ocean and Antarctica are too large and remote for any single nation to tackle all the scientific issues involved, so effort is coordinated through the international Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR). Nations cooperate to carry out research on the effects of global climate change on the Southern Ocean, increasing our understanding of the consequences for the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. The size of the UK scientific operation in Antarctica is second only to the USA and through BAS the UK has national capability to provide international scientific leadership in the Southern Ocean. This is achieved by combining, in one institute, a critical mass of diverse scientists and by using assets to maximum effect over many years in a planned programme. Scientific expertise and leadership, as well as first class polar logistics capability, enables BAS to provide the national focus for polar science undertaken by the wider UK science community.

Fundamental science in the Southern Ocean

  7.  BAS provides the UK with fundamental science relevant to current pressing global concerns. It does this through a highly developed national capability, which includes advanced computer facilities for high resolution modelling of the interactions between the Southern Ocean, the atmosphere and the Antarctic ice system. BAS has an excellent record of delivering scientific advice to Whitehall and providing scientific evidence on which policy is based.

  8.  BAS's interdisciplinary science integrates physical and biological oceanography, including fisheries-related ecological research, with work on the atmosphere, climate, glaciology and geology. It includes research on Southern Ocean biodiversity, evolution and adaptation at all levels cells to ecosystems. It tackles problems concerned with the formation, circulation and mixing of water masses that regulate ocean temperature and maintain stability. UK research is exploring the likelihood of collapse of the ice shelves and the dynamics of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. This is vital for understanding sea level rise and assessing the threat of flooding to low-lying land in the UK and elsewhere, including Britain's Overseas Territories.

  9.  BAS also provides the logistic capability to project into the Southern Ocean UK research on the natural oceanic plankton production processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the acidification of the oceans by excess carbon dioxide. This has particular relevance to the Southern Ocean because of its ecological sensitivity and productivity. Where BAS does not possess specific scientific skills it collaborates to ensure strategic direction and leadership are maintained in the UK research community.

British Antarctic Survey capability in the Southern Ocean

  10.  BAS provides the UK's logistic capability in the Southern Ocean including two ice-strengthened research vessels and four shore-based research stations. It provides the intellectual leadership to tackle interdisciplinary research problems and holds unique long-term data sets, in some cases spanning decades, recording environmental change in the Southern Ocean. It carries out year-round, shore-based marine science, including biological and oceanographic monitoring. The data provide a unique resource for understanding long-term variability and change. BAS has the capacity to integrate remotely sensed oceanographic data from satellites with data collected at sea. It links together new marine science technologies for large-scale data collection and possesses a world-class ability to integrate information from different sources. It houses state of the art computing facilities for data processing and modelling.

  11.  A new era of ocean science is dawning in which use of research vessels for data collection in the oceans is being enhanced by new in situ technologies including remote unmanned systems such as moorings, drifters and gliders. These provide synoptic data at relatively low cost and are currently being introduced into Southern Ocean research by BAS scientists. These will link with similar systems deployed by other national programmes. More of this will be needed in the future, as environmental change gathers speed.

  12.  BAS provides training for the next generation of British marine scientists, equipping them with specific skills for Southern Ocean research.

Science into policy

  13.  The British Antarctic Survey has a strong record of delivering scientific inputs to HMG policy. These include:

    —    Antarctic Treaty (including a recent initiative to develop Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean).

    —    Commission for the Conservation for Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—the first international organisation to adopt an ecosystem framework for fisheries management providing a model for fisheries management elsewhere, including European waters.

    —    Management of the fisheries in waters surrounding the South Atlantic Overseas Territories (South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands).

    —    Agreement on Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP)—part of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

    —    Wider policy areas such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and ozone.

  14.  A recent major issue has been the catastrophic decline of albatrosses in the Southern Ocean. BAS research data has provided scientific evidence to develop policy leading to substantial reduction of mortality in Antarctic waters. This has attracted much attention from the scientific and conservation communities including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Conclusion: the Future of Marine Science in the Southern Ocean

  15.  BAS science in the Southern Ocean is linked to the new Oceans 2025 programme of UK based, marine science funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. Through BAS, the UK will lead Southern Ocean science through the International Polar Year (2007-08). It will also lead beyond this milestone through international programmes including European initiatives.

  16.  The environmental issues identified here are of rapidly increasing importance to the UK and other nations, as the Stern Review has highlighted. We can already observe the impact of global climate change on world food security, global biodiversity, ocean circulation and sea-level rise. This will be one of the fastest growth areas for scientific research over the next decade and beyond. BAS research in the Southern Ocean provides a critical element of the Natural Environment Research Council's spending review programme "Living with Environmental Change".

  17.  The UK must maintain strong scientific leadership in Southern Ocean science where it has unique assets and extensive experience. BAS needs the investment of resources to enhance its capability to provide the best scientific advice to inform UK policy. It requires a critical mass of intellectual leadership, to ensure the nation's capacity to meet the challenges ahead and the ability to capitalise on future opportunities provided by new initiatives and new technology.

  18.  BAS is crucial to maintaining the UK's position in the science and governance in the Southern Ocean and to capitalising on the scientific, commercial and political opportunities in the region.

  19.  BAS will be happy to provide further evidence, or to amplify any of the points in this paper.

January 2007





 
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