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Science and Technology Committee Inquiry: Marine Science

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into Marine Science. You can read the terms of reference for the inquiry here:

Submitted 19th September 2012

  1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for Geoscience, with more than 10,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-specialist audiences.
  2. We have not attempted to answer all the questions raised in the Terms of Reference for the inquiry. The main points raised below are:
    i. The role of the geosphere in ecosystems, and of geoscience in marine science policy, are not fully recognised.
    ii. This may have damaging consequences because of the importance of the geosphere in provision of ecosystem services, discovery and production of natural resources, understanding and mitigating natural hazards and understanding environmental change.
    iii. Constraints on the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC’s) budget represent a serious threat to the UK’s leading role in major international marine research projects.

    Since 2007 has there been improved strategic oversight and co-ordination of marine science?

  3. The publication of a UK Marine Science Strategy (MSS) is a welcome step towards coordinating marine research across a wide range of disciplines. The introduction of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) is also a potentially important development in taking a joined-up approach to marine conservation. It is important that the holistic approach espoused in general terms in the MSS and in the description of MCZs is given substance and is fully implemented.
  4. In both cases, we are concerned that abiotic elements of ecosystems are undervalued in comparison with biotic elements; and that the significance of the geosphere (that is, the solid Earth) within the wider Earth system, and its interactions with the hydrosphere (oceans, rivers and lakes) and the atmosphere, are not fully recognised. These aspects are not extensively explored in the MSS, and appear to be regarded as being of secondary importance. In the case of MCZs, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC’s) definition explicitly recognises the need to protect geology and geomorphology alongside marine wildlife and their habitats, but the capacity may not be in place to ensure that this is done in practice. Furthermore, the information page about MCZs on DEFRA’s website does not mention the geosphere or geoscience ( See further comments on MCZs at paragraph 19.
  5. This shortcoming is shared by several other recent high-level environmental policy documents based wholly or partly on an ‘ecosystems services’ approach . These include DEFRA’s flagship Natural Environment White Paper (The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, 2011). The National Trust highlighted this issue in its September 2011 evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the White Paper, saying that ‘the conservation of our geological heritage is almost entirely missing from the NEWP and we are in danger of overlooking this vitally important asset’. The Geological Society wholeheartedly supports the ecosystems services approach. However, we believe that its efficacy is significantly diminished if the contribution of the geosphere to ecosystem service delivery and its interactions with other elements of the system are neglected.
  6. Priorities set out in top-level policy documents such as the MSS and the DEFRA White Paper are likely to be reflected in subsequent implementation, especially as the geoscience community has limited influence and capacity to address such shortcomings further downstream. We raise these concerns not to promote the interests of professional geoscientists, but because it is vital that there is recognition of the underpinning and dynamic role of the geosphere for the provision of ecosystem services, discovering and producing the energy and mineral resources on which we depend, understanding and mitigating natural hazards and understanding environmental change.
  7. Ecosystem services. The geosphere acts as a first-order control on marine habitats and the ecosystem services they provide, in both coastal and deep sea environments. Some instances of this are far from obvious. For instance, oceanic nutrient cycling as a supporting service is dependent on geochemical interactions between various components of the marine system (bedrock, superficial sediments, biota, the water column and the atmosphere). This in turn influences provisioning services (commercial farmed seafood such as cockles, oysters and mussels) and cultural services (appreciation of marine environments and biodiversity).
  8. Coastlines in the UK exhibit not just high levels of biodiversity, but also exceptional geodiversity, as recognised through designations such as the Giant’s Causeway and Dorset Coast World Heritage Sites. In coastal zones, rivers, sea, land and submarine geology interact dynamically, shaping these environments, the biosphere and human interaction with them. A wide range of anthropogenic effects risk causing marine habitat loss through the interaction of geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. Sediments are transported in and out of estuaries by the tides, carrying with them pollutant loads, and interacting with seawater chemistry. (Understanding these processes and their effects on organisms depends on both the marine collection and geochemical analysis of such sediments.) Fishing can cause disturbance to the sea floor, disrupting ecosystems. The construction of coastal defence structures can change current patterns and resultant sediment distribution. MCZs represent a powerful tool to protect and understand these complex systems in coastal environments, if properly applied to their abiotic as well as biotic elements.
  9. Natural resources. Understanding of submarine geology and development of technologies which operate in demanding environments at the interface between the oceans and the subsurface are essential to the UK’s oil and gas supplies. They will also underpin carbon capture and storage (CCS), if this vital part of our carbon emissions mitigation strategy is to become a reality. Oil and gas exploration and production are increasingly taking place in the deep ocean, at depths of over 2500m (and increasing), and in other technically challenging environments. Meeting these challenges while maintaining the highest levels of environmental protection will depend on research and the training of skilled scientists and engineers. While continued use of fossil fuels without CCS is unsustainable, we will continue to depend on these fuels to meet the needs of a growing global population for several decades.
  10. It is now widely accepted that substantial metal ore deposits lie beneath mid-ocean ridges (e.g. in the Atlantic). Mining of these will soon become technologically feasible, and is increasingly likely also to be economically viable. Appropriate scientific and technological skills need to be developed to support research into the occurrence and extraction of such ore deposits.
  11. Closer to home, the UK is also dependent on the seabed for extraction of large volumes of aggregates (sand and gravel) used in construction materials.
  12. Natural hazards. Our understanding of hazards such as submarine earthquakes and landslides, and our ability to prepare for and mitigate their effects (including tsunamis), depends on marine geoscience. Such hazards are principally natural in origin, although some are increasingly influenced by human behaviour. (A potentially significant threat is the release of sediment-bound methane as Arctic permafrost melts with rising global temperatures, most rapidly at the poles.) The human cost of natural hazards, however, is strongly shaped by human behaviour, most notably through settlement patterns (highly concentrated in coastal regions) and concomitant destruction of natural defences such as mangrove forests. 
  13.  Understanding environmental change. The addition of large amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and increasing global temperatures are closely linked with other major changes to the Earth system. Increased levels of dissolved CO2 in the oceans will cause them to become more acidic, and this in turn will have extensive impacts on ecosystems and wider Earth systems – for example, by affecting planktonic organisms’ ability to build calcium carbonate shells. Coral reefs, which host vast numbers of species in some of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, and provide ecosystem services such as tourism, fishing and coastal protection, are particularly vulnerable to changes in ocean chemistry, and are already deteriorating rapidly. Ocean circulation patterns are likely to change significantly, with warm water displaced towards the poles, affecting species distribution including food fish such as cod.
  14. The geological record provides extensive evidence that rapid atmospheric carbon emissions in the deep past have been associated with such environmental changes, profoundly affecting not just the atmosphere but also the oceans and life itself. See the Geological Society’s Climate Change Statement (November 2010) for further information ( Developing a better understanding of these past changes and their impacts remains an urgent research priority.
  15. Although global warming of the atmosphere has slowed in the past decade, warming of the ocean has continued. Because the oceans are the ‘flywheel’ of the climate system, slowly redistributing heat around the world, understanding and forecasting climate change depends on observations and measurements of the oceans by ships, satellites, buoys, moorings and autonomous vehicles like gliders and ‘autosubs’ – work which can only be achieved through international collaboration. Our knowledge of the oceans and of ocean-atmosphere interactions is currently sparse. More accurate data, collected more frequently, are required to populate models which are poorly constrained, in order to improve forecasting of climate change and impacts.
  16. Deep sea drilling to explore what lies under the sea bed also depends on international collaboration. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) has an outstanding record of achievement in this area. It has revolutionised our understanding of plate tectonics, the evolution of the ocean floors and their mineral potential (see paragraph 10). Through exploration of deep ocean sediments, it has also provided vital evidence of the history of climate, and together with polar ice cores has demonstrated the susceptibility of the Earth’s climate to major changes, stemming both from tiny changes in solar energy caused by wobbles in the Earth’s orbit, and from changes in atmospheric CO2. It has also delivered huge economic benefits by demonstrating the oil and gas potential of continental margins globally. The UK has been an active participant in IODP from its inception, and UK scientists still figure prominently. Participation of young Earth scientists in IODP provides unique training in the geosciences and invaluable experience of working in international teams, which has led to a sterling record of high quality research outcomes.
  17. With the prospect of global environmental change posing the greatest threat to those countries which can least afford to mitigate the effects, it is imperative that industrialised nations like the UK continue to provide the bulk of the effort to monitor ocean change and learn from the submarine geological record.

    What progress has been made in delivering the 2010 Marine Science Strategy?

  18. In common with other Research Councils, NERC has been faced with difficult funding choices as a result of the cash freeze on the UK’s Science Budget. It has chosen to reduce some elements of national capability spending in order to increase the amount available for competitive research funding. This has resulted in reductions in the budgets of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), and the loss of experienced ocean science researchers. There is serious concern that this will have a significant impact on collaborative international survey and research programmes such as those outlined above. (See Nature News article at, for example.) There have also been reductions in infrastructure, and given the prospect of further budget cuts, effective UK involvement in these international programmes appears vulnerable. Loss of national capability in marine science as a short-term financial measure is likely to have long lasting strategic consequences, to the detriment of the UK and the wider international community.

    Has the selection of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) been based on robust scientific evidence?

  19. As noted above, JNCC’s definition of MCZs explicitly recognises the need to protect geology and geomorphology alongside marine wildlife and their habitats. We understand that geoscientists are involved in the regional committees to identify candidate MCZs, but not in steering implementation at a national level. It remains unclear what restrictions will be put in place in MCZs, and how these will be policed. Those geoscientists who are involved in the process are keen to convey, for example, the dynamic nature of the sea floor. This means that aggregate extraction outside a MCZ but near its boundary is likely to have adverse effects inside it. It is not apparent that such issues are given due attention. A possible concern is proximity or overlap of MCZs with wind turbine arrays and hydrocarbons licensing areas. Marine conservation could suffer if evidence relating to the geosphere is ignored as an integral part of ecosystem functionality.

    How effectively does the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) support marine science in polar and non-polar regions?

  20. We note NERC’s proposal to combine the management structures of BAS and NOC, which is currently a matter of public consultation. More effective strategic integration of marine science in polar and non-polar regions is a sensible driver, but any potential benefits are not likely to be felt if this coincides with the loss of significant numbers of experienced researchers (see paragraph 18, above).

    Closing comments

  21. The Society would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.