Scientists at Heriot-Watt University are co-ordinating research into how climate change might affect biodiversity in our offshore waters, and which might have a serious impact on future medical treatments.
Dr J Murray Roberts, Reader in Biodiversity at Heriot-Watt University, leads the project. "Many people don't even realise that there are very large scale cold-water coral reefs off the west coast of Scotland and that these are homes to a wide variety of other marine life.
"This in itself is important because some of the most important developments in new drugs, including anti-cancer therapies, come from marine organisms, particularly sponges. To date these have often been tropical sponges, but cold-water sponges are now becoming a new focus of attention.
"We recently logged 100 species of sponges in cold-water coral reefs at Mingulay, so any threat to these reefs means a threat to local biodiversity and in turn a threat to potential new drug treatments.
"If the ocean acidification projections are correct, waters that have been suitable for cold-water coral growth for many hundreds of thousands of years could become corrosive by the end of the century. Cold-water corals produce one of the most biodiversity-rich habitats in the oceans but we've barely begun to understand their ecology and importance. It's starting to look as though we could be altering the chemistry of the oceans to such an extent that cold-water corals will simply start to dissolve where they're growing so this project is vitally important to understand how the corals may respond to a changing world."
Dr Roberts' team will research how ocean acidification and warming may affect UK habitats formed by cold-water corals (Lophelia pertusa) and coralline algae (maerl). Dr Roberts has worked on cold-water corals since 1997 and was the first to map the UK's only inshore cold-water coral reef in 2003.
Work has already begun to set up the new aquaria to keep corals alive at Heriot-Watt University. The research will take three years and involve intense periods of fieldwork to maerl beds and cold-water coral reefs. Researchers will spend at least two months at sea using the UK's deep-sea remotely operated vehicle ISIS to study the cold-water corals at both Mingulay and Rockall Bank.
The need for more knowledge about how ocean acidification will progress and how it will impact upon the oceans environmentally, socially and economically is recognised as a key issue across a number of government departments.
Minister for the Marine Environment, Richard Benyon, said:
"The effects of climate change on land have been well documented yet we are only just beginning to explore the damage that rising CO2 levels could have on our marine ecosystems."
"The UK is the world leader in marine science and it is projects such as this that will help us understand the effects of ocean acidification on the world's seas and oceans.
"This research programme is vital to help us meet the challenges ocean acidification presents."