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Coldwater coral

Coldwater corals
(known as Lophelia pertusa reefs)
Courtesy of Prof Murray Roberts

Cefas scientist to "SPI" on coldwater coral habitats

15 May 2012

With the oceans warming and moving towards acidity, will Scotland's coldwater corals die out, 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 who have 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 (NERC's) Royal research ship, the James Cook.

The "Changing Oceans" expedition is part of the £12 million UK Ocean Acidification Research programme, jointly funded by NERC, and government departments DECC and Defra. It will study how these unique deep-sea ecosystems function, and how they may be impacted by changes in sea temperature and ocean chemistry.

It is hoped that the survey will provide new information on how coldwater corals might best be protected in future.

Cefas' Dr Silvana Birchenough is taking part in the multidisciplinary cruise and will be using a Sediment-Profile Imagery (SPI camera) to investigate sediment layers within the seabed.

The SPI camera has a prism that penetrates the seabed and collects profile images, similar to looking at sand and gravel through the glass of an aquarium. These images help scientists to characterise the biodiversity and "bioturbation" of habitats (that is, how species rework the sediment). For this cruise, Dr Birchenough will be collecting data on habitats adjacent to the coral reefs.

Sediment-profile images (SPI) collected at different UK habitats

SPI Images

SWI = sediment water interface; SP = sea pen; SF = surface fauna; I = infaunal polychaete; v = void; B = burrow. The scale on the left is at 2cm intervals (© Crown copyright).

Dr Birchenough said: "This is a very exciting opportunity for us to view, in real time, various burrows, fauna and sediment types. We will be also able to incubate some of these habitats and mimic ocean acidification effects.

"This research will help our conservation colleagues (JNCC and Marine Scotland) with scientific evidence for monitoring some of these areas."

Expedition leader Murray Roberts, Professor of Marine Biology at Heriot-Watt University, said: "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 coldwater 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 micro-organisms 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 we will be mapping the seabed. We will also collect cores of the seabed that can take us back thousands of years in time."

A blog is being kept during the cruise around the Hebrides. To find out more about this research and to follow cruise activities on the James Cook visit: http://changingoceans2012.blogspot.co.uk.

© Crown Copyright 2014
Last Modified: 16 May 2012