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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 09:52 GMT
Climate 'altering UK marine life'
Waves smashing over Scarborough sea-front (Image PA)
The UK's coasts are becoming stormier places, the report says
The biodiversity and productivity of seas around the UK could already be suffering the consequences of climate change, a report has concluded.

It says damaging storms have become more frequent, and rising sea surface temperatures have led to an apparent northward shift of warm-water plankton.

The "Annual Report Card" pulls together leading research on climate change's impact on the UK's marine environment.

The study was compiled by the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership.

The partnership (MCCIP) - including government departments, academics and NGOs - hoped the publication would give more people better access to the research, and help them understand the issues surrounding the topic.

Warming waters

The report looked at a range of climate-related issues affecting the marine environment; from temperature changes and sea level rise to the distribution of fish species.

Map showing regional sea areas around the UK (Image: BBC)
1. Northern North Sea
2. Southern North Sea
3. Eastern English Channel
4. Western English Channel and approaches
5. Irish Sea
6. West Scotland
7. Scottish continental shelf
8. Atlantic north-west approaches
(Source: Defra)

Each section provided an assessment of what was already happening, before outlining what could happen in the future.

For example, it said: "There has been a greater incidence of severe winds and increasing wave heights in western and northern UK territorial waters over the past 50 years."

Looking at future projections, it added: "Different modelling approaches project different scales of change but indicate that wind strength and wave heights will increase."

Each of the contributing scientists rated their level of certainty about the statements within the report, as low, medium or high, based on the amount and consistency of available data.

It gave a low confidence rating to the impact of climate change on the distribution of fish species because it said that observations of rare fish migrants to UK water cannot yet be directly attributed to global warming.

It also added that although cold-water species had moved further north in some regions, such as the North Sea, the shifts had not happened elsewhere.

But forecasts for increases in sea surface temperatures (SST) received a high confidence rating.

It projected: "Models anticipate that SST will continue to rise in all waters around the UK coast, with stronger warming in the south-east than in the north-west."

A puffin holding fish in its beak
Changes to fish numbers have been linked to a decline in sea birds

Warmer-water plankton had shifted 1,000km northwards in the north-east Atlantic over the past 40 years, the report card said, indicating that a change was taking place in the marine environment.

The small free-floating organisms form the basis of the food web in the sea, so the availability of plankton has a major influence on the distribution of fish stocks and animals further up the food chain, such as sea birds.

But the study also said that whilst the variety and distribution of marine species were being altered by climate change, it was not the only factor; commercial fishing remained the major cause of changes in fish populations.

Projection of sea levels around the UK's shores rising up to 80cm by 2080 received a "medium" confidence rating, yet forecasts of increased coastal flooding merited a "low" confidence rating, illustrating the complexities of modelling the impacts of climate change on the seas around the UK.

State of the seas

Commenting on the launch of the annual report card, UK Climate Change Minister Ian Pearson said: "Our seas play a vital role in shaping and regulating our climate and have a tremendous bearing on our future well-being."

"There is a lot we still do not understand about the impact climate change will have on our oceans, but the report card gives us at-a-glance the latest scientific knowledge which will improve our understanding and our capacity to act," he added.

The MCCIP was launched in March 2005 by the government and devolved administrations, as part of a commitment to assess the state of the waters around the UK.

The partnership said that it would publish a report card each year to keep people informed about developments in research on the UK's marine environment.

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