Researching Blue Carbon – meet Connie Nutbrown

April 3, 2019 by No Comments | Category Blue Carbon, Collaborations, Marine Directorate Science

Last December, we told you about a new Scottish Government funded research programme into Blue Carbon which started in early 2017 as part of a commitment in the 2017-2018 Programme for Government.

The current focus of the programme revolves around measuring the ability of various habitats to sequester carbon, understanding how it is stored for the long term, and building an evidence base on the effects that human activities may have on these process.  To support the programme, the Scottish Government has sponsored a number of PhD students and Marine Scotland has just established the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum (SBCF), which will be made up of the students and supervisors of the studies, as well as external stakeholders and Scottish Government climate change colleagues.

We’ve introduced you to some of our PhD students already but next up, to tell you more about their work is Connie Nutbrown:

“My NERC iCASE funded project brings together three institutions: The Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology (Heriot-Watt University), The Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and Scottish Natural Heritage, with the goal of developing more informed and targeted conservation strategies for the maerl beds in Scottish seas.

What are maerl beds and why are they important?

Maerl is a type of free-living red seaweed which forms hard calcium carbonate skeletons, giving it a similar appearance to coral. Accumulations of maerl form ‘beds’ that are found worldwide, from the intertidal zone to hundreds of meters below the sea surface. 30% of Europe’s maerl beds are found along the west coast of Scotland and the islands- many of the beaches here are actually made of maerl.

Maerl beds are important for Scotland because they support ocean health and biodiversity, providing many economically and ecologically important ecosystem services. The three dimensional structure of maerl beds provides habitats and nursery area for many species, in fact the biodiversity of maerl is as high as coral reefs! Maerl beds are also effective in capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and the trapping of organic matter, so they are known as ‘blue carbon’ stores. However, maerl is very slow growing (around 0.2mm per year in Scotland!) and so is vulnerable to physical damage such as trawling. Once beds are disrupted recovery can take hundreds of years, if at all. Climate change – specifically global warming and ocean acidification – is also threatening the future survival of maerl beds.

What will I study?

All European beds are categorised as ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Endangered’, and many in Scotland now have designated protection, but we still do not know enough about them to ensure that conservation strategies are as effective as possible. My project aims to increase our understanding of how ‘connected’ maerl beds are around Scotland. This information will help to better design the maerl bed management plan for Scotland. First, I will combine environmental data (e.g. temperature) and current knowledge about maerl bed locations to design a computer model to estimate the true extent of Scottish maerl beds. Then I will test the estimates in the field. I will also analyse DNA of maerl from many locations to determine how closely related different beds are. This information is useful for conservation because it will tell us if some beds are reliant on others for reproductive genetic material and so protecting these ‘source’ beds would mean other beds may fare better too. Looking at the genetics of different beds also allows us to evaluate their relative health, informing us about the impacts of different local activities. The genetic analyses will be complemented with laboratory experiments to assess the capacity for different species to capture carbon via photosynthesis. My hope is that the results from my project will be taken on board by Scottish conservation organisations to ensure maerl bed management is sustainable and effective.

Connie Nutbrown

Further Information

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