BAS Ecosystems

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Antarctic Survey


Polar ecosystems have global ecological and economic importance. They have unique biodiversity, play a major role in climate processes, and support indigenous communities and commercial fisheries. Polar ecosystems have adapted to cold and highly seasonal conditions, making them sensitive to climate and human impacts. Recent global, climate-driven changes, combined with expanding commercial fishing, threaten the balance of these unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems. By understanding their response, we can use them as a warning system for climate change across the planet. The BAS Ecosystems Programme undertakes integrated analyses of Antarctic ecosystems and develops understanding of the large-scale operation of Arctic ecosystems and the role of polar ecosystems in the Earth System. Programme Goals are: a) to understand what determines the ability of species to adapt to change through genetic, physiological and ecological processes across a range of marine and terrestrial ecosystems; b) to develop quantitative descriptions of the life-cycles of species to determine their likely response to environmental change; c) to determine the resilience of polar ecosystems to past and current climate change to predict how they may respond in the future; d) to provide data and policy advice on key species and whole ecosystems to underpin further development of sustainable fisheries management in the Antarctic and beyond — fulfilling UK obligations under the Antarctic Treaty; e) to use regional ecosystem analyses (e.g. of the Scotia Sea and Antarctic Peninsula) to develop models of polar ecosystem dynamics (structure, interactions and biodiversity) to provide insight into the large-scale operation of bi-polar ecosystems.


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Description The major goal of the British Antarctic Survey Ecosystems programme was to develop integrated physical, chemical and biological analyses of polar species and ecosystems to improve understanding of their responses to change and their role in the Earth System. Ecosystems programme studies of polar marine, freshwater and terrestrial species and ecosystems have produced major developments in understanding of basic biological processes, responses to change and links between polar ecosystems and the wider Earth System. Significant advances were made in understanding the genetic, physiological and population processes determining species distributions, and organism and ecosystem responses to environmental changes (e.g. warming, reductions in snow and sea-ice cover and ocean acidification). Analyses of food-web processes were important contributions to understanding the regional impacts of climate change and historical harvesting in polar ocean ecosystems. The latter have influenced the development of international research on oceanic food-webs, and underpinned Ecosystems scientists' leadership in the international Integrating Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics in the Southern Ocean programme, generating major advances in understanding the large-scale operation of polar ocean ecosystems. Ecosystems scientists have also made significant contributions to understanding the impacts of change in terrestrial ecosystems, which have led to an international focus on the interactive effects of climate change and invasive species on biodiversity.

To deliver the science Ecosystems programme scientists have developed innovative technologies, methods and analyses. New technologies have included the use of echo-sounders in autonomous ocean gliders to examine distributions of marine organisms, and satellite imagery to count penguins from space and assess changing patterns of terrestrial vegetation. New analytical approaches have been developed to provide understanding of large-scale processes in polar ecosystems, including modelling the controls on connectivity and genetic structure of populations of marine organisms, and comparative analyses of the structure and functioning of geographically separated polar ecosystems. An important goal of the international polar scientific community is to develop quantified understanding and models of whole ecosystems and project the impacts of future change. Ecosystems scientists have made a significant contribution to this goal, delivering quantified analyses and models of key species life-cycles and food web structure.

These studies have also been an important influence on policy development. For example, Ecosystems programme scientists' had a leading role in activities of the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and particularly in the development of Southern Ocean marine spatial planning. The data generated by the Ecosystems programme has been used directly within CCAMLR scientific assessments for the development of management policy. The results from a range of Ecosystems studies were also included in an international assessment of conservation challenges in Antarctica, identifying future research priorities. A major overall outcome from our studies has been the demonstration of the importance of analysing the effects of multiple stressors across a range of spatial and temporal scales for understanding the impacts of change in polar ecosystems. Collectively, the high profile outcomes of the Ecosystems programme are an important input into the development of future NERC, and international scientific community, research priorities in polar science.
Exploitation Route The outputs of these studies will be of direct and lasting benefit to a range of stakeholders including: i. biological, ecological and climate change scientists: these groups will benefit directly from data provision by our observational work and enhanced mechanistic and quantitative understanding provided by our experimental and observational findings. This information forms a major contribution to internationally coordinated activities of the ICED and SCAR programmes in which Ecosystems scientists have leading roles. ii. Policy forming bodies: International and UK governmental environment and climate change departments and centres of excellence (e.g. the European Union, UK Meterological Office, DECC, DEFRA, BIS and FCO and international equivalents) as well as international (SCAR and SCOR) and non-governmental organisations (e.g. IPCC, conservation charities and pressure groups) interested in climate change, impacts and mitigation, fisheries and conservation. In addition, Ecosystems science is an important contribution to CCAMLR activities, aimed at developing sustainable management of fisheries, and it underpins stakeholder engagement activities (e.g. businesses involved in fisheries and tourism). The results of these studies are of wide public and media interest (including to teachers and students) in issues relating to climate, fisheries and biodiversity, and contribute to raising awareness of the importance of environmental science.

CCAMLR: Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. (

ICED: Integrating Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics in the Southern Ocean. A regional programme of the IGBP IMBER programme and co-sponsored by SCOR. (

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (

IGBP: International Geosphere- Biosphere Programme. (

IMBER: Integrated Marine Biogeochemical and Ecosystem research (co-sponsored by IGBP and SCOR). (

SCAR: Scientific Committee on Antarctic research (

SCOR: Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research. (
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment

Description BAS Ecosystems programme scientists have had a major role in delivery of scientific advice to underpin policy development in the Polar Regions. The major area of input relates to Southern Ocean fisheries management through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The Southern Ocean is one of the least disturbed marine systems on the planet and contains one of the last under-exploited sources of marine protein, Antarctic krill, which is a central species in the marine food web. Recent technological developments enable krill to be harvested economically, with new markets driving increased catches. CCAMLR regulates the multi-national exploitation of krill, but the challenge is to do this without damaging the iconic Antarctic marine ecosystem, particularly in the context of rapid, regional climate change and human population growth. The Ecosystems programme science has been at the forefront of the debate on how to achieve this, delivering scientific expertise, data, and vision. The UK delegation to CCAMLR is led through the Polar Regions Unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Scientific advice on all aspects of the Antarctic marine ecosystem is provided to the FCO by Ecosystems scientists. CCAMLR operates through a number of scientific working groups that report to CCAMLR's Scientific Committee, which in turn advises the Commission. Ecosystems scientists have participated in CCAMLR meetings at all levels (form scientific working groups through to the Commission). Part of the management strategy adopted by CCAMLR for measuring the potential impacts of krill harvesting on the marine ecosystem is through the CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Programme (CEMP). Ecosystems has contributed more observational data to CCAMLR through CEMP than any other Member. This data has underpinned the input of scientific advice by Ecosystems scientists, providing the UK with a strong leadership role in the development of policy. There are a number of areas where Ecosystems scientists have had a particularly substantial impact on the work of CCAMLR since the programme began. We have been very active as part of the current CCAMLR initiative to design a new ("feedback") management strategy for the krill fishery and in highlighting the importance of climate change in the work of CCAMLR. CCAMLR has been in the vanguard of agreeing Marine Protected Areas (MPA), it being the first international legal instrument to agree the first High Seas MPA off the South Orkney Islands in the Southern Ocean in 2009. This achievement was recognised by WWF who presented CCAMLR with a 'Gift to the Earth' award in 2010, WWF's highest achievement award. The scientific case that underpinned the agreement of the MPA was developed and led by Ecosystems programme scientists. The development of the South Orkney Islands MPA is regularly cited as evidence of CCAMLR's commitment to protect and conserve marine biodiversity, using the best available scientific evidence. More recently the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) announced the creation of an MPA covering over 1 million km2 of the highly productive waters around these unique islands, with additional spatial and temporal protection announced in 2013. The SGSSI-MPA was developed following scientific advice from NERC scientists through the Ecosystems programme and a stakeholder consultation. More recently, advice on the process of assessing the operation current MPAs and the development of further MPAs has been provided by Ecosystems scientists as part of ongoing discussions within CCAMLR. In addition to work on the marine ecosystem and fisheries, Ecosystems scientists have provided specific input on measures to conserve threatened seabirds through the contribution of data, research and advice to the international Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) and have been central to the development of measures to protect Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems. The data, analyses and models generated by the Ecosystems programme have also been a major contribution to the development of internationally coordinated analyses of biodiversity and ecosystem processes in polar regions. The studies generated by Ecosystems were influential in the development of the new biology programmes within the Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research (SCAR). Ecosystems science has also been central to the international activities aimed at developing analyses of circumpolar ecosystem operation and responses to change through the Integrating Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics in the Southern Ocean programme (ICED), which is the regional programme of the Integrated Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems Research programme (IMBER - an International Geosphere - Biosphere Programme and co-sponsored by the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research - SCOR). The analyses developed within the Ecosystems programme have also contributed to the assessment processes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Ecosystems scientists were directly involved as authors of the most recent report. The data and scientific analyses from Ecosystems are a major contribution to the next stage of international efforts to generate quantified understanding and models of polar ecosystems and projections of the impacts of future change. The results of the Ecosystems programme studies are already having a major influence on the development of policy for the management of human impacts in polar ecosystems over the next decade. They represent a major policy impact for BAS, NERC and UK science.
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Challenges to the future conservation of the Antarctic.
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Impact BAS scientists have been involved in an international collaboration to undertake a first horizon scanning attempt to identify future threats and challenges to the conservation and governance of Antarctica. The work involved a wide cross-section of scientists, policymakers, and historical specialists. Based on a rapidly expanding body of research literature, the twin challenges of climate change and biological invasions (biosecurity) featured highly in the risks identified, along with those of poorly controlled infrastructure development and exploitation. It questions whether currently-existing Treaty systems are sufficient to address these challenges, and identifies areas where particular attention is required, in particular relating to biosecurity, human settlement and movement, and exploitation.
Description Conserving the world's threatened seabirds; the contribution of research by British Antarctic Survey to the international Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP)
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact ACAP was ratified in 2004 and aims to improve the conservation of the 29 listed species. These pelagic seabirds are amongst the most threatened of all groups of birds, mainly reflecting unsustainable levels of incidental mortality (bycatch) in commercial fisheries and, for some, the additional impacts of introduced mammals at colonies. BAS researcher, Dr. Richard Phillips, has been an adviser to the UK delegation to ACAP since the first Advisory Committee (AC) meeting in 2005, and convenor of the Populations and Conservation Status working group since 2009. BAS holds amongst the most comprehensive long-term datasets available on population trends, demography and at-sea distribution of albatrosses and giant petrels. These formed the basis of submissions to ACAP in 2013 and were incorporated into a range of products including summaries of global population status that highlighted ongoing declines, headline indicators used to assess the progress of ACAP, and papers submitted to fisheries regulatory bodies. Given the continuing population declines documented by long-term monitoring at Bird Island, discussions at the last ACAP meeting in France in May 2013 confirmed that wandering and black-browed albatrosses at South Georgia should remain amongst the five populations designated by ACAP to be of greatest global conservation concern. Target audience(s): Government Department;General Public
Description Reducing human impacts in Antarctica
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Impact Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of human activities. The increasing numbers of scientists and tourists are threatening the continent?s biodiversity through habitat destruction, chemical and sewage pollution, displacement of wildlife and particularly non-native species introductions which have been recognized as one of the major threats facing conservation in the Antarctic Treaty area. BAS scientists are central to initiating, coordinating and contributing to large-scale multinational collaborative initiatives through the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) by documenting and analysing Antarctic biodiversity data, and using this to generate policy-related advice to stakeholders. In 2012 BAS scientists provided direct input and comment on the revisions to the Antarctic Act 1994, which has passed through Parliament as a Private Members Bill by Neil Carmichael, MP for Stroud as the Antarctic Bill (2012/13). Particular input was given regarding the revisions to the Act concerning permitting, conservation of animals and plants and Annex XI of the Environmental Protocol (Liability arising from environmental emergencies). In addition, BAS scientists provided expert input into the Overseas Territories White Paper (2012) which highlights the environmental protection of the BAT, including marine and terrestrial protected areas, non-native species management and tourism management through the production of guidelines.
Description Using NERC science to protect the Southern Ocean
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Impact In 2012 the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) announced the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) covering over 1 million km2 of the highly productive waters around these unique islands, with additional spatial and temporal protection announced in 2013. The SGSSI-MPA was developed following scientific advice from NERC scientists and a stakeholder consultation. The SGSSI-MPA is currently the world?s largest sustainably managed MPA; it includes a range of spatial designations including IUCN Category I strict no-take zones and IUCN Category VI areas. Important provisions include protection from and mitigation of a number of specific threats related to the commercial fisheries operating in SGSSI waters. These include prohibition of any bottom fishing in over 92% of waters. Thus, most of the seabed is now permanently protected, including unique and important hydro-thermal vent communities and deep hadal communities in the South Sandwich trench. Pelagic provisions now include the seasonal closure of the Antarctic krill fishery (between November 1st and March 31st) protecting krill eating predators (particularly penguins and fur seals) during their summer breeding season. Further advice may be developed in relation to other important factors such as climate change.