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A ‘time machine’ to study the future of our oceans

08 September 2011

A new laboratory, which will simulate the changing conditions of the seas around Scotland over the next hundred years, has been opened at Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh campus.

The quarter million pound project will simulate rising water temperature and ocean acidification. It will then run these conditions over an eighteen month period to see what effects they have on native cold-water corals, an important ecosystem which helps to support marine biodiversity.

The project is part of the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme, and has been funded and supported by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as well as Heriot-Watt University.

Dr J Murray Roberts, Director of Heriot-Watt’s Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology, leads the project. “We hear a lot about global warming, but ocean acidification is also caused by CO2 emissions, and it has been dubbed the ‘climate change’s evil twin’.

“The oceans currently absorb almost a third of the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels and climate change would be far worse without this. However, when CO2 dissolves in seawater it forms carbonic acid and as more CO2 is taken up by the oceans they move towards a more acidic state. Ocean pH has already decreased by about 30% and if we continue emitting CO2 at the same rate by 2100 the acidity of the ocean will increase by about 150%, a rate that has not been experienced for at least 400,000 years. A huge change like this in the basic chemistry of the ocean is likely to have big implications for ocean life, especially for those organisms, like corals, which need calcium carbonate to build shells or skeletons.

“That’s what we want to look at, and this new lab means that we can take samples of cold-water corals which we have collected off the Scottish coast and see how they fare over an eighteen month period in a simulation of what the seas and oceans might be like in 100 years time. It’s the next best thing to having a time machine, and the results will be important to the emerging study of ocean acidification as well as to the future of Scotland’s cold-water coral reefs, which we know are an important support to biodiversity in our seas.”