CaNDyFloSS: Carbon and Nutrient Dynamics and Fluxes over Shelf Systems

Lead Research Organisation: Centre for Env Fisheries Aqua Sci CEFAS
Department Name: CEFAS Lowestoft Laboratory


The large continental land masses are surrounded by extensive shallow (ca 100m depth) seas known as the 'shelf seas'. These act as the boundary between the massively perturbed terrestrial environment and the vast open ocean marine system, and have huge socio-economic importance. They are the primary regions of human marine resource exploitation, including both renewable and fossil fuel energy sources, recreation, trade and food production. Although comprising only about 5% of the global ocean surface area, the shelf seas provide 90% of the global fish catches which form an important source of food to much of the global population. They also play an important role in the ecosystem services provided by the oceans as a whole, in particular in storing carbon away from the atmosphere.

Physical and biochemical processes in shelf seas influence the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and the subsequent storage of carbon in the deep ocean. Biological growth draws carbon out of the water, which is then replaced by carbon in CO2 from the atmosphere. In the shelf seas this growth is supported by terrestrial and open ocean sources of nutrients, implying intimate roles for both the terrestrial biosphere and the open ocean environment in regulating shelf sea climate services. The oceans can also be a major source or sink for other greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide (N2O), with the shallow shelf seas thought to play a key role.

The spatial extent of the submerged continental shelves varies greatly. The NW European shelf sea is one of the largest and hence is likely to play a significant role in marine biogeochemical cycling, alongside providing a useful model for other systems However, even in this relatively well studied region, we lack a good understanding of the principal controls on the cycling of carbon and the major nutrient elements, nitrogen, phosphorous and silicon. Consequently it is also difficult to predict how the cycling of these elements and hence the carbon removal they support may be altered by ongoing and potential future global change. Our proposal aims to address these uncertainties through a comprehensive study of the cycling of the major nutrients and carbon throughout the water column over the NW European shelf sea system.

Through close collaboration with a range of partners, we will undertake a year-long observation programme of the whole NW European continental shelf. We will measure the seawater concentrations of the major forms of carbon and nutrients. Combining these with physical water transports and measured transfer of gases (specifically CO2 and N2O) between the air and sea surface, we will quantify the major fluxes of nutrients and carbon between the shelf sea and both the adjacent deep ocean and atmosphere. This will definitively establish the role of this shelf system in the global carbon and nutrient cycles.

We will also undertake 4 dedicated research cruises focused on understanding the seasonal cycle of biological and chemical processing of the different forms of the nutrients and carbon. We will measure the rates at which both the photosynthetic and consumer plankton incorporate nutrients and carbon into their cellular material, and subsequently how the combined activity of this biological/chemical system influences the cycling of the major elements. This will allow us to understand the ways in which the role of the shelf system in global cycles is maintained.

The combined work delivered by both this proposal and the other programme workpackages will allow us to identify aspects of the NW European shelf system which may be susceptible to ongoing or future environmental changes. Such knowledge will provide both enhanced scientific understanding and improved predictive tools for policy makers and other stakeholders.

Planned Impact

Our work is directly relevant to Defra, the Marine Management Organisation and Marine Scotland requirements to support the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Water Framework Directive and the Marine and Climate Acts. The whole-shelf survey data and detailed process studies will be valuable additions to the knowledge of the state of the UK shelf seas, providing underpinning information about nutrients together with the distribution, functioning and diversity, of the planktonic ecosystem. Our new information will assist further development of indicators and targets for eutrophication and pelagic biodiversity required to implement the MSFD. It will also allow refinement of specific monitoring programmes required for the MSFD, the Water Framework Directive and the OSPAR Joint Assessment and Monitoring Programme. A combination of the observations and analysis carried out by us, and the supporting synthesis in the modelling work package, will provide targeted information to Marine Scotland, Cefas and Defra for use in delivering aspects of the Marine Act (Scotland) and the Climate Act (UK). New strategies for monitoring shelf regions, e.g. gliders, are of interest to the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS) through, for example, the UK Integrated Marine Observing Network (UK IMON) initiative. Our mooring in the central Celtic Sea will provide a new data stream to the European Marine Ecosystem Observatory (EMECO). Defra, Marine Scotland and the MMO rely on Cefas, Marine Scotland Science and UKMMAS (BODC and Medin) for integrated evidence. We will supply all quality-controlled data to BODC, and real-time data streams directly to EMECO, and the Met Office. Representatives from all agencies will be supported to attend project meetings and the final science meeting. We have also set aside a budegt for ad hoc briefings to Defra and MMO (requested as useful by Defra).

Operational modellers of shelf seas at the UK Met Office have a direct interest in real-time data and in new process-focused data in shelf seas. Our data will help Met Office operational modelling (for data assimilation) and model validation (e.g. time series of vertical turbulent mixing, new CTD and towed vehicle transects, and current data). Agencies with responsibilities for fisheries (e.g. Cefas, AFBI) have a clear interest in our nutrient and plankton community data , in the context of how shelf sea primary production supports fish stocks. Cefas is a collaborator on our project. Representatives from AFBI and the Met Office will be supported to attend project meetings and the final science meeting. The WWF-led Celtic Seas Partnership also has interests in methods and data that could be applicable to ecosystem-based management of shelf seas, particularly in waters to the west of the UK; they will be engaged through the Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry programme Knowledge Exchange activities, providing an important route into other relevant stakeholder groups and NGOs.

There is a general public interest in our shelf seas as a source of food and energy that is susceptible to climate change. This includes interest from schools that often require societally-relevant novel questions to drive the science curriculum. A project website will be supported by the NOC Communications and Public Engagement Office, along with regular press releases. Many of our PIs have experience in interacting with local and national press. We will use our work to provide a demonstration of a cost-effective method of engaging with school children that has quantifiable results in attracting pupils towards STEM subjects at university.


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Description Results from the shelf-wide sampling programme have resulted in a large database which will improve understanding of carbonate chemistry over the North-Western European Shelf in relation to nutrient biogeochemistry, particularly in the context of climate change and ocean acidification.There is strong seasonal and regional variability in carbonate chemistry around the shelf in relation to nutrient biogeochemistry. Spatial and seasonal variations in the ratio of DIC to nitrate concentration were seen that could impact carbon cycling.
The CO2 influx to UK shelf seas in 2014-2015 from the atmosphere was dominated by influx during winter as a consequence of high winds, despite a smaller sea-air CO2 gradient compared to summer. Land-management policies which might alter the delivery of carbon to the NW European shelf would only have a modest effect on the open-shelf climate regulation service (net CO2 influx from the atmosphere).

Results from high resolution measurements in the Celtic Sea challenge the generally accepted assumption that convection dominates over wind driven mixing resulting in seasonal breakdown of stratification. Furthermore we found, that vertical mixing in autumn not only transformed the vertical density structure but also the vertical structure of chlorophyll biomass and surface nutrients. This increased mixing also led to replenishment of surface nitrate concentrations, which supported an autumn phytoplankton bloom. While the significance of phytoplankton blooms in autumn has previously not been well quantified, we argue that these can act as a significant contributor to the seasonal drawdown of carbon.
Exploitation Route Policy-relevant information has been and will continue to be fed into development of marine policy at Defra
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The findings from this award have contributed to expert advice to UK government (Defra) to develop and improve marine policy (e.g. The strong variability (both in time and space) of shelf seas needs to be taken into account when planning and implementing monitoring programmes. Areas with high variability require more monitoring effort than those with low variability, where long-term trends may be easier to detect.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Blue Carbon governance workshop (UEA, Norwich, UK) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop to discuss how to govern future Blue Carbon trading
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Science meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to the 2016 AGU fall meeting by Tim Jickells - Abstract Title: The shelf life of Blue Carbon; quantifying and valuing North Sea coastal and shelf sea carbon stores.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017