How will climate change impact the UK's marine life?

Erin O'Neill By: Erin O'Neill
Date posted: 22 October 2018

You might have seen the latest news on global warming; findings released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn how we are completely off track in preventing the world’s global temperature from rising by 2C, or even by 1.5C, by the year 2100. The likely effects of this warming are detailed in their special report, and it has to be said, things aren’t looking good.

We’re already seeing the consequences in real-time as coral bleaching, changing migratory routes of marine life and melting of Arctic ice are accelerating as our oceans heat up.

The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) has revealed the species and habitats native to UK marine protected areas that are most vulnerable to climate change. These plant and animal communities are vital to our ecosystem for multitudes of reasons, and risk facing a catastrophe as we struggle to control the rising temperatures of our seas.


As sea levels rise, more and more saltmarsh is lost. As well as supporting a number of bird, plant and fish species, saltmarsh filters pollutants, reduces flood risk, and stores carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere.

Saltmarsh, Wales

Maerl Beds

Formed by calcareous red seaweeds, maerl beds are essential for supporting a variety of communities of plants and animals, and providing nursery grounds for fish and shellfish, such as scallops and razor clams. The skeletons of the maerl are particularly vulnerable to acidification caused by changes in pH levels from ocean warming.

Maerl Beds

Coral Gardens

Formed of one or more coral species, coral gardens are home to basket stars, brittle-stars and feather stars, bivalves, shrimps and deep-water fish. There is a lack of direct evidence to show how exactly climate change will impact coral gardens, but it is thought that cold-water species may be replaced by coral more tolerant to warmer waters, causing significant changes to the ecosystem.

Eddystone coral


Sandeels are an important link between plankton and predatory fish, seabirds and mammals. Birds like puffins and razorbill depend on sandeels to feed their chicks, and major seabird breeding failures have been linked to their decline. Climate change and the warming of waters creates poor synchrony between peak hatch times in sandeels and availability of the plankton they feed on. In turn, this adversely affects the growth and survival of the many animals that depend on sandeels, as their population continues to decline.

Sand eels


Marine plants help to clean the air we breathe. Seagrass are amongst the planet’s most effective natural ecosystems for capturing and storing carbon, using the sun’s energy to convert this into oxygen. If degraded, they could release stored carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. These plants also provide habitats for beautiful species of conservation importance such as stalked jellyfish and seahorses.

Eel grass with corkwing wrasse

Horse Mussel Beds

Horse mussels are large, long-lived, slow-growing molluscs. They form dense raised beds which can be found at depth of over 100 metres which provides refuge for a wide variety of species, including red seaweeds, crabs, scallops, whelks, brittlestars and starfish. They have also the capacity to filter water and lock up carbon.

Horse Mussel

Saline Lagoons

Saline lagoons are highly productive ecosystems. They are complex and dynamic habitats that support a number of rare species of invertebrates and plants, as well as providing a highly important resource for large numbers of birds that use the habitat for feeding, nesting and roosting at high tide. Saline lagoons have been identified as one of the most vulnerable habitats to climate change impacts, with their physical, chemical and ecological characteristics all likely to be affected.

Loch of Stenness

These plants and animals already exist within the UK’s marine protected areas with laws to protect them. There now needs to be regulations and control on the management of these areas, or they are no better than ‘paper parks’. Good management and enforcement will help to limit the consequences of climate change on these particularly vulnerable – and vitally important – species.

Click here to learn more about the UK’s marine protected areas.

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