Resolving Climate Impacts on shelf and CoastaL sea Ecosystems (ReCICLE)

Lead Research Organisation: National Oceanography Centre (WEF011019)
Department Name: Science and Technology


Shelf and coastal seas provide vital services for society, notably food, from fish, and climate regulation, through their role in drawing down and storing atmospheric CO2. The ecosystems of these seas are vulnerable to global climate change, arising from greenhouse gas emissions. Being able to provide reliable future projections of the impacts of climate change on these regions is therefore vital for our knowledge of how these services may be impacted. The overall purpose of the proposed work is to identify and quantify the potential future response to climate change of the simple plant life (phytoplankton) forming the base of the food chain of the shelf sea ecosystems and to assess the likely range of this response. To deliver this we use a state of the art coupled hydrodynamic-ecosystem model at an exceptionally fine resolution. This is driven by the output of global climate models, which along with aspects of the ecosystem model structure, are selected so as to span the potential response of the system to climate change, and provide a range of views of the future. Statistical methods are then used to characterise this response in terms of timeseries and changes in areas of similar properties (the biogeography), how clearly the climate signal can be detected and how this signal propagates through the food web.

We focus on six key indicators of ecosystem response on the Northwest European Continental shelf (termed intermediate services): primary production (plant growth), oxygen uptake, nutrient transport, uptake and recycling, biological control (how energy and material is transferred between different levels in the food web), and the habitat of the water column. The impact of climate change (through changes in the atmosphere, open ocean and terrestrial forcing) on the physical and chemical processes will affect these key indicators in different ways. Examples include: modification of the shelf sea nutrient distribution by changes in oceanic mixing, changes to the timing and magnitude of spring phytoplankton blooms due to changes in wind mixing and light levels, and changes to sea water temperature directly affecting growth rates. The physical processes active in the regions of these seas where primary production is highest are generally of finer scale than many model systems can accommodate, examples include extra mixing generated by steep and variable topography, plumes of nutrient and sediment rich river water, and fronts between well mixed and seasonally stratified waters.
The potential effects of climate change on the finescale processes is largely unknown, but may radically change our view of the overall impact of climate change in these seas. Alongside the details of the physics, the complexity of the ecosystem must also be accounted for. There a several feedbacks at the base of the food web, which control how chemical energy cycles through the system. If different elements of this cycle, e.g. grazing by zooplankton and nutrient recycling by bacteria, respond to change in different ways then the overall effect may be amplified or suppressed. This amplification or suppression determines how vulnerable the overlying services (e.g. fish production) are to climate change, and hence the potential societal implications.

To address these issues we propose a tightly integrated programme of model experiment design, simulation, evaluation and analysis, organised in four work packages: Experiment design and uncertainty, Model validation using observational analysis, Analysis of ecosystem response, Model products. Together this will produce an unprecedented view of potential climate impacts on marine ecosystems, including the effects of fine-scale physical processes, non-linear ecosystem interactions and an assessment of the range of likely impacts. We will condense this information into a set of model products that are readily accessible by scientists of other disciplines and wider stakeholders.

Planned Impact

The project offers benefits for three different groups: Policy makers, including: UK government departments: particularly DEFRA and DECC, but potentially also DFID and MOD; UK governmental agencies such as CEFAS, MMO, Marine Scotland, AFBI, EA and Met Office, Intergovernmental bodies: ICES, EEA, OSPAR, and IPCC. Industry, including: Living Marine Resources: fisheries and aquaculture; mineral extraction: oil and gas; Insurance; off shore; renewable energy; maritime operations and transport. General public
How they will benifit:

Science into Policy:
The project will provide the first clear view of potential impacts of climate change on the lower trophic level ecosystem of the Northwest European shelf seas at a local to regional scale that includes estimates of uncertainty and confidence, and as such will be an important resource for informing future policy development, to adapt to and build resilience against this change. The two most relevant policy aspects, from a UK perspective, are the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The MSFD requires EC member states to develop strategies to achieve a healthy marine environment and make ecosystems more resilient to climate change in all European marine waters by 2020 at the latest. This work will directly inform the resilience aspect and how these issues are likely to evolve 30 years beyond the MSFD target period. This is particular relevant to how characteristics, targets and indicators may change for the following high level descriptors of good environmental status: 1 Biodiversity; 4 Foodwebs; 5, Eutrophication; and 7 Hydrography. The CFP has committed itself to implement an ecosystem approach to fisheries management thereby aligning itself with the Integrated Maritime Policy and ensuring the sustainable provision of goods and services from living aquatic resources. This work provides important underpinning evidence as to what might constitute 'sustainable', which could, with added value from Fisheries scientists, be translated into realistic targets of Maximum sustainable Yield (as specified in the on-going CFP reform). The work also has the potential to help marine spatial planning for habitat identification and the definition of marine protected areas, and whether these have long-term resilience.
While the work here focuses on Northern European waters, the model tools are widely applicable to shelf seas around the world. The methodological aspect of this work potentially benefits other regions looking to perform similar model experiments and assessments in their shelf and coastal seas. This is especially relevant for less developed counties where benefits for food security and poverty alleviation issues are more substantial that in Northern European Seas.
The 'physics only' simulations provide a resource for other policy relevant issues, notably coastal defence and naval operations.

Wealth Creation:
There is a growing demand for rigorously assessed information about potential future climate states, apparent in the emerging 'Climate Services' sector. This work could feed information into this industry with a wide range of beneficiaries. The ecosystem focus of this work particularly lends its impact to the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, while the hydrodynamic simulation has direct relevance for the oil (maritime operations) and gas (pipe line efficiency) sectors. The near coastal nature of this work has potential relevance, with further work on sea level impacts, to the insurance industry interested in coastal flood risk. The specific benefits of this work would be the fine scale of the information and the treatment of uncertainty and confidence.

Media Relations and Public Engagement: There is considerable public interest in climate change effects in the marine environment and several groups could potentially benefit from this work through education, general interest and careers inspiration.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/M003477/1 31/03/2015 31/10/2019 £341,994
NE/M003477/2 Transfer NE/M003477/1 01/11/2019 30/09/2020 £13,637