A research expedition to the Arctic by Westcountry scientists has revealed some of the effects of global warming on marine wildlife.
The researchers, from Plymouth and Exeter universities, took part in the Catlin Arctic Survey, a unique collaboration between the worlds of science and exploration aimed at understanding climate change.
They worked alongside polar explorers camped in winter conditions on the Arctic ice at temperatures of -40C, risking frost bitten fingers, in a bid to collect the data.
Dr Helen Findlay, from Plymouth Marine Laboratory, joined Dr Ceri Lewis from the University of Exeter in testing how the tiny marine animals behave when water becomes more acidic, one of the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The study, conducted during the Arctic spring when wildlife and plants bloom, revealed that tiny crustaceans, known as copepods, are likely to battle for survival if ocean acidity continues to rise.
It found that the creatures may not be able to survive as seas become more acidic, something which could have a dramatic impact on the entire food chain of the region and the planet.
Dr Lewis said: “This unique insight into how marine life will respond to future changes in the oceans has implications that reach far beyond the Arctic regions.”
Copepods are one of the most abundant marine animals on the planet and a vital food source for a wide variety of other marine life.
They can also act as bio-indicators, providing an early warning system for the health of the environment.
Until recently, it has been difficult to document what copepods and other marine life do when the Arctic ocean is covered by sea ice, and more specifically what conditions they experience.
Some areas are already experiencing the fastest rates of acidification on the planet and, combined with sea-ice loss and warming temperatures, the impacts of climate change are likely to hit Arctic marine life first.
An estimated 30% of carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans. And with carbon emissions set to increase, the world’s oceans are likely to suffer from increased acidification in the coming years.
Dr Findlay added: “Our work has shown that life experience matters when it comes to surviving stressors.
“More studies are needed that link the natural environmental conditions to laboratory experiments. Ceri and I are planning to continue this line of work through a PhD studentship next year.”