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15 May 2012

Countdown to Destruction for Scotland's Corals?

With the oceans warming and moving towards acidity, will Scotland's cold-water corals die out within a hundred years, as some predict, or do they have the capacity to adapt and survive? These are the key questions facing a team of top international scientists about to set off on a month long research voyage in the waters around Scotland using the latest robotic submersible technology. The researchers will be aboard the Natural Environment Research Council’s Royal Research Ship James Cook.

The 'Changing Oceans' expedition is part of the £12m UK Ocean Acidification Research programme (UKOA) jointly funded by NERC, DECC and Defra. It will study how these unique deep sea ecosystems function, how they may be impacted by changes in sea temperature and ocean chemistry and provide new information on how they might best be protected into the future. Stewart Stevenson, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, who was briefed by the 'Changing Oceans' team onboard before they set out said:

"The Changing Oceans Expedition will help us understand how these ancient ecosystems function which is vital information for a sound scientific basis for their future conservation.

"It's less than ten years since the discovery of the Mingulay coral reefs by a team also led by Professor Roberts. Since then understanding of this marine ecosystem has developed considerably.

"It is also very encouraging to see that the voyage is allowing school pupils first-hand experience of the amazing ecosystems in our offshore waters, and the opportunity to share this understanding with other pupils around the country."


At the start of the voyage schoolchildren from Sgoil Lionacleit in Benbecula, will visit the ship to watch the expedition’s robotic submarines explore the deep sea coral reefs growing on the Hebridean seabed. The team will also be working with the pupils and educational specialists from Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh to develop environmental workshop materials for use in schools around Scotland.

The research: Expedition leader Murray Roberts, Professor of Marine Biology at Heriot-Watt University, said,

"For Scotland's coral reefs the key questions are: will these changes in sea water chemistry make it impossible for the corals to grow, or can they somehow adapt to changing conditions and survive?

"Over the past 100 years, human activities including the burning of oil, coal and gas have increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, causing the oceans to become warmer and lower in pH. For cold-water corals, these changes mean that they may start to grow slower, need more food to survive, and may not even be able to grow in some areas. There may also be changes in how much food is available, as the whole marine food web is likely to be altered, unpredictably, in a future, warmer, lower pH ocean.

"We need to learn more about how these corals will react to the changes, by studying how they survive now, and by doing laboratory experiments to see how they respond to different conditions. There are also a myriad of other animals and microorganisms which live on and around these coral reefs – we will be examining how these creatures will be affected by changes in their environment. Our work will also characterise the carbonate chemistry and environmental conditions surrounding the reef areas, and map the seabed. We will also collect cores of the seabed that can take us back thousands of years in time."


In a month-long sea voyage the Changing Oceans team will visit a number of key sites in UK, Irish and international waters, using remote-controlled underwater vehicles to film ecosystems like cold-water coral reefs and deep-sea sponge grounds. The team plans to visit several sites, including the shallow reefs off Mingulay, and the deeper reefs on Rockall Bank and the Logachev Mounds. The scientists will also conduct seabed experiments and collect samples which will be transported in large specialised sea water tanks for further study in the lab.

They will also be running a blog covering details of the voyage, the research and their findings on:
http://www.changingoceans2012.blogspot.co.uk/

Stewart Stevenson
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