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New research: effects of ocean acidification revealed

9 June 2010

A major scientific breakthrough reveals the ecological effects of ocean acidification for the first time - using volcanic carbon dioxide vents.

Underwater video footage

Watch underwater video
footage from the expedition

Ocean acidification is one of the most important environmental issues facing the planet as 70 percent of the world is covered by the ocean. It is estimated that by 2100, CO2 released by human activity will be double pre industrial levels and be higher than at any time in the past few million years, profoundly increasing the acidity of our oceans. But exactly how this will affect marine ecosystems has remained uncertain - until now.

An international research team led by Royal Society University Research Fellow Jason Hall-Spencer at the University of Plymouth has conducted the very first ecosystem-scale study of the effects of acidification on marine life, as Dr Hall-Spencer explains; "Nobody has looked at the biological effects of ocean acidification on this scale before. Previous studies have been small scale, short-term and laboratory-based, so it has been very difficult to predict the wider effects of increasing CO2 emissions on marine life. We show how whole marine communities and ecosystems change due to the long-term effects of acidification."

The ongoing project focuses on the effects of ocean acidification by monitoring ecosystems in close proximity to submarine volcanic carbon dioxide vents. This innovative approach was developed after the team found that vent systems act as large-scale natural experiments revealing the effects of man-made CO2 emissions.

Dr Hall-Spencer says these expeditions provide vital information on what major ecological shifts should be expected to occur over the coming decades "Our field studies provide a window on the future of the oceans in a high CO2 world. We show the dramatic ecological consequences of ocean acidification including the removal of corals, snails and sea urchins and the proliferation of invasive alien algae. Our observations verify concerns, based on laboratory experiments and model predictions, that marine food webs will be severely disrupted and major ecological tipping points are likely if human CO2 emissions continue unabated."

The research team involved 8 colleagues from France, Israel, UK and Italy and included Emma Ransome and Sonia Rowley, both students at the University of Plymouth. The full report, ‘Volcanic carbon dioxide vents show ecosystem effects of ocean acidification’  was published in Nature in July 2008.  View the paper from the Nature website (PDF).

The research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Save the Seas Foundation.


Notes to editors

- Photographs of seagrass meadows thriving in acidic conditions together with the severe dissolution of corals are attached for publication.

- For a pre-publication copy of the research paper, alternative images, video footage or to arrange an interview with Dr Jason Hall-Spencer, please contact University of Plymouth Press and PR Officer Karen Mason on 01752 588002.

- The University of Plymouth is a member of the Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership. PMSP represents one of the largest regional clusters of expertise in Marine Sciences, Education, Engineering and Technology in Europe. The Partnership brings together leading organisations (Diving Diseases Research Centre, Marine Biological Association, National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Sciences and University of Plymouth and most recently the Royal Navy's Flag Officer Sea Training, Hydrographic and Meteorological group) to optimise their knowledge and strengths for the benefit of the region, the UK and international communities. Partners work closely, and often collectively, to deliver world-class marine research, education, conservation and technological innovations building on over 100 years of research activity in Plymouth. This strategic collaboration harnesses the full potential of enormous expertise in the region.

- The Leverhulme Trust is one of the largest all subjects providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £40 million every year. For further information about all of the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund please visit their website at