Climate change is one of NERC's three current
strategic priorities, but questions about the impacts of climate
change on the marine environment (and vice versa) are being addressed
under all three priorities. Examples of questions being investigated
by NERC-funded researchers are given below.
What are the sources, sinks and transportation
processes of carbon within the Earth system?
The ocean contains around 95% of the world's
mobile carbon. Small changes in either annual inputs of carbon
dioxide (CO2) to, or outputs from, the ocean result in much larger
changes in atmospheric levels, with consequent implications for
climate change. Studies of the dynamic behaviour of ocean circulation,
chemistry and biology are critical to reducing uncertainty in
global climate modelling.
The build-up of CO2 in the oceans has made surface
waters more acidic than they have been for millions of years.
Ocean acidification is likely to continue, and NERC expects to
make the study of its effects a priority in the Earth-system-science
approach in its emerging strategy.
NERC marine carbon processes work extends from
remote satellite modelling studies, to determine large-scale ocean
dynamics, through to experimental sea-going studies, to sample
in specific areas and interfaces. These studies encompass the
coast and open ocean examining both the upper ocean and sea bed
processes. The most relevant are included in the programmes of
CASIX, PML, SAMS and NOCS.
What is the role of biodiversity in ecosystem
function, and what are the consequences of biodiversity loss on
ecosystem processes, particularly those involving micro-organisms?
Work is being carried out to assess how changes
in biodiversity can be detected and measured together with studies
on what functional consequences would result from change. These
studies extend from the genetic level to whole organisms, such
as marine mammals, and cover a broad geographical scope extending
to the polar regions.
The M&FMB programme has contributed significantly
to this area, as are programmes at BAS, MBA, PML, SAMS and SMRU.
Long-term surveys carried out by SAHFOS have shown dramatic changes
in the pelagic systems of the North Atlantic in recent decades,
with northerly movement of cold-water plankton without their replacement
by warm-water species.
2: CLIMATE CHANGE
How has the climate changed in the past, and how
will it change in the future? How can we separate natural climate
change from that caused by the activities of humans? Will long-term
gradual change predominate, or can we expect to see abrupt climate
change at the regional scale?
Much work has been carried out on oceanographic
variability and the interactions between the atmosphere and oceans
in order to better understand the role that they have in governing
the variability of the Earth's climate. Current research is now
seeking to establish the probability and magnitude of future climate
change, and to determine past climate change by looking at palaeo
data records. Studies have also focused on both natural forcing
functions and anthropogenic influences on climate change. These
include work on processes originating in the Antarctic and the
sensitivity of the global climate system to them, and work in
the Arctic as an area of sensitivity in which marine processes
are crucial to understanding short term (sub-decadal) impacts.
The RAPID and COAPEC directed programmes, and
programmes at BAS, CASIX, SAMS and NOCS are particularly relevant.
What is the role of the Atlantic's overturning
circulation in regulating climate? What are the causes of, and
changes in, the variability in the North Atlantic oscillation?
In addition to the work undertaken through centre
programmes (NOCS, SAMS) on the circulation in the Atlantic, key
components of both the RAPID and COAPEC programmes have focused
on the Atlantic overturning circulation. Examples of issues that
have been examined are: the role of air-sea forcing, the role
of sloping topography, the role of salinity, balancing of heat
and freshwater budgets, heat transfer and storage, variation in
these processes and their impact on the global climate. BAS work
in the Antarctic has examined how the dense water masses in the
Antarctic influence the global ocean circulation.
What are the physical, chemical, geological and
biological consequences of climatic perturbations on the world's
The primary objective of the AUI programme is
to investigate the marine environment of floating ice shelves
with a view to advancing the understanding of their role in the
climate systems, and together with core programme work undertaken
by BAS the knowledge base in this area has been greatly expanded.
What are the biological and geological feedbacks
on the climate system in response to climate change? How will
natural climate-erosion feedback be modified by climate change,
and what will the impacts be?
In order to provide greater understanding of
the climate system, work is being undertaken from the microbial
to ecosystem level. Modelling studies are being carried out in
conjunction with this work towards determining the impacts of
variations in the climate system as a result of climate change.
The UK SOLAS directed programme, and programmes
at MBA, PML and SAMS are particularly relevant.
What are the past-century trends in European and
UK mean and extreme sea-levels? What are the causes of sea-level
change and can we accurately predict the changes from a combination
of climate and geodynamic models?
Studies are being undertaken not only to evaluate
past trends in mean and extreme sea level, but also to compare
these measurements to climate and geodynamics models in order
to establish how well they perform. Developmental research is
being undertaken to improve the current techniques of sea level
monitoring, which should provide greater understanding of sea
level change. This type of work extends from the European to Antarctic
climate, where work is being conducted to establish the history
of ice sheets and subsequently use this information in ice-sheet
BAS, BGS and POL programmes are particularly
How strong is the link between climate change
and natural hazards and disasters, such as storms, coastal erosion,
floods, landslides and drought?
Interdisciplinary work, from estuaries and coasts
to the deep oceans, is being undertaken to examine how the different
processes in the marine environment that contribute to climate
control may be linked to natural hazards. This work includes topics
such as sediment dynamics and coastal defence, and ocean-atmosphere
Whilst submarine landslides and similar geological
events can occur independently of climate change, it is possible
that climate-change-related changes in sediment stability (eg
related to gas hydrate release) could increase the probability
of tsunami-generating events.
The COAPEC directed programme, and BGS and PML
programmes are particularly relevant.
How will terrestrial and marine species adjust
to climate and environmental change, especially within the fragmented
land uses of Europe? How can conservation practices assist the
process of adjustment?
Underpinning research is being conducted in
order to provide a greater understanding of marine ecologytowards
establishing those factors that may limit and control population
dynamics and distribution. From this base, work is now being undertaken
to try and predict how marine species may be impacted by both
natural and anthropogenic changes in their environmental conditions.
The implications for ecosystem functioning are being considered.
The Marine Productivity directed programme,
and programmes at MBA, NOCS, SAMS and SMRU, and the AMT consortium,
are particularly relevant.
What are the impacts of climate change on continental
shelves, and what are the implications for coastal-zone management?
Through direct measurements and modelling methods,
changes in the continental shelves, as a result of climate change,
are being investigated. Part of this work is focused on establishing
how this may impact upon costal defences, which will be essential
in determining the implications for coastal zone management. Ecological
impacts of and habitat creation by sea defences have been investigated
to inform environmentally sensitive design.
BAS, BGS, MBA, PML, POL, and SAMS programmes
are particularly relevant.
3: SUSTAINABLE ECONOMIES
What are the environmental, economic and social
impacts of renewable energy sources in terms of their complete
generation cycles, including power source, infrastructure, and
Through collaborative work POL is seeking to
develop models that can demonstrate the impacts of anthropogenic
activities such as the establishment of offshore renewable energy
operations. The SAMS artificial reef programme contributes to
our understanding of artificial ecosystem creation and manipulation
required for the foundations of offshore windfarms and tidal barrages.
Work on the physics of tidal jets in fjords is being used to assess
the potential of tidal barrages in sea loch systems.
What are the environmental risks of exploiting
gas hydrates as an energy source? What is their role in large
undersea slumps, which could result in dangerous tsunamis, as
well as climate variability? What scope is there for under-sea
Work is being carried out on gas hydrates towards
assessing them as a hazard and potential energy source. Together
with work on habitat mapping, and improvements in prediction (for
exploration) and reservoir characterisation, the understanding
of marine geohazards and their potential impacts are becoming
The Ocean Margins LINK directed programme, BGS
and NOCS programmes, and the new "Dynamics of gas hydrates"
consortium are particularly relevant.
Through BGS and PML, NERC is also assessing
the appropriateness and potential impact on the marine environment
of under-sea carbon sequestration.
67 Natural Hazard Working Group (2005) The role of
science in physical natural hazard assessment. Report to UK government,
OST, 42 pp. Back