The ocean stores huge amounts of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. Marine organisms play a critical role in this process, but emerging evidence indicates that climate models are not fully accounting for their impact. This undermines carbon policies, such as national net zero targets.
This biological influence on future ocean storage of carbon (BIO-Carbon) research programme is carefully designed to produce new understanding of biological processes. It will provide robust predictions of future ocean carbon storage in a changing climate.
The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), which coordinates climate research internationally and is sponsored by United Nations (UN) organisations, has expressed its greatest priorities as 3 questions.
This programme will address 2 of those questions:
- what biological and abiological processes drive and control ocean carbon storage?
- can and will climate-carbon feedbacks amplify climate changes over the 21st century?
There are 3 interlinked programme challenges, which will address three aspects of biological influence:
Challenge 1: how does marine life affect the potential for seawater to absorb carbon dioxide, and how will this change?
The ability of the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide is influenced by its alkalinity. Reducing alkalinity pushes more of the dissolved carbon in seawater into the form of carbon dioxide. This reduces the capacity of the ocean to take up further carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Seawater alkalinity is influenced by a range of natural processes. The most important of these is the biological production of calcium carbonate (for example, by molluscs and fish), which removes alkalinity from seawater. As the calcium carbonate sinks, it dissolves, and the alkalinity is returned to the seawater.
Maintaining the vertical distribution of alkalinity fundamentally sets the capacity of our oceans to take up carbon dioxide. However, estimates of global ocean calcium carbonate production, vertical transport and dissolution vary by up to a factor of 5.
This uncertainty is important because failure to reproduce alkalinity accurately in a climate model significantly impacts future projections of ocean carbon dioxide uptake and storage.
Examples of significant knowledge gaps relating to key processes include:
- what organisms are producing highly soluble carbonates in the surface ocean, and where?
- which forms of calcium carbonate are dissolving where in the ocean?
- what are the factors involved in the dissolution of different forms of carbonate, and what is their sensitivity to the anticipated impacts of climate change?
Challenge 2: how will the rate at which marine life converts dissolved carbon dioxide into organic carbon change?
Primary production by marine phytoplankton converts a similar amount of carbon dioxide into organic material each year as do all land plants combined.
Climate models cannot constrain this crucial global flux to within a factor of 3 for the contemporary climate, which points to major gaps in understanding.
Furthermore, uncertainty about our estimates for how oceanic primary production will change under climate warming has increased, rather than lessened, this decade. Whether global primary production will increase or decrease is unknown.
Primary production is strongly influenced by ocean warming and the availability of light and nutrients. However, the contributions of changes in these drivers to trends across climate models are poorly constrained.
The importance of organism interactions and metabolism, and their associated demands for carbon and other resources, is neglected by climate models. This is despite emerging observational indications of their significance.
Examples of knowledge gaps relating to key processes, operating across different scales, include:
- what controls the efficiency of primary production?
- what are the contributions of nutrient recycling and the consumption of phytoplankton by zooplankton to this efficiency?
- how do these processes vary across different ocean environments, and how might future change, such as warming and acidification, affect them?
Challenge 3: how will climate change-induced shifts in respiration by the marine ecosystem affect the future ocean storage of carbon?
Organic carbon produced in the upper ocean cannot be returned to the atmosphere until it is converted back into carbon dioxide by the respiration of marine organisms.
Deeper ocean respiration supports longer carbon storage as it takes longer to return to the ocean surface and make contact with the atmosphere.
We still have poor understanding of how respiration varies with depth, location or season. We know it reflects the diversity of the organisms, from bacteria attached to sinking dead material to fish migrating daily between the surface and the ocean interior.
We also know that these organisms are responding to anthropogenic changes, such as changes in temperature which affect the metabolism of organisms.
In addition, existing models only reproduce a limited selection of relevant processes, with no consistency in that selection across models.
Examples of significant knowledge gaps relating to key processes affected by climate change include:
- what is the relative influence of size, shape and composition of non-living organic material in determining the rate at which it is converted back to carbon dioxide?
- what are the relative magnitudes of the carbon dioxide generated by bacterial degradation of non-living organic matter and that respired directly by other organisms?
- how might ongoing changes in the environment (for example, to oxygen or temperature) affect respiration?
In addressing challenges 1, 2 and 3, the programme’s research will provide a fundamental understanding of key biological processes that are globally relevant.
By encapsulating this new knowledge in a robust modelling framework, it will examine the resulting feedback on future predictions for how global ocean carbon storage may change.
Additionally, it will provide new parameterisations of key processes for inclusion in the next generation of climate models, and ‘emergent constraints’ to identify clearly erroneous forecasts.
The use of emergent constraints has been successfully applied to other areas of climate science, such as a constraint on climate sensitivity provided by air temperature variability or cloud feedbacks. However, it is yet to be adopted widely in marine science.
The BIO-Carbon programme aims to highlight the importance of international waters to discussions on carbon policy.
All BIO-Carbon proposals for this funding opportunity are therefore required to focus research on processes that are globally relevant, in waters:
- within the open ocean water column
- beyond the continental shelf break
- where the seafloor is typically at a depth greater than 1,000 metres
BIO-Carbon programme’s fieldwork projects funded through this opportunity will be focused in the North Atlantic. More detailed information on the geographic focus of the BIO-Carbon cruise plan will be made available in March 2023, shortly after a community workshop. The geographic focus of cruise plan will be limited by the need to efficiently use BIO-Carbon’s allocated ship-time and budget for National Marine Facilities support costs. For more information on the workshop see the ‘Additional information’ section.
The outcomes of this research programme will:
- enhance our understanding of key biological processes that affect how carbon storage by the global ocean will change in the future
- significantly improve global ocean carbon budget projections, to better inform policy development and decision making in support of net zero ambitions
- provide new parameterisations of key processes and emergent constraints on global model behaviour for use in simulations feeding into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) seventh assessment report
- implement new parameterisations and constraints in a suite of global models. This will provide a robust assessment to 2100 of the biologically associated changes in global ocean carbon storage, and their sensitivity to key processes identified by this programme. This assessment should be suitable for inclusion in IPCC’s seventh assessment report
- provide a significant UK contribution to the UN Ocean Decade outcome for ‘A predicted ocean’ by improving our ability to model oceanic responses under anthropogenic influence
- address 2 priorities of the WCRP’s grand challenge on carbon feedbacks in the climate system
Apply for funding
Apply to this stage 1b opportunity for funding to contribute toward a new understanding of key processes regulating ocean carbon storage. Proposals should deliver cutting edge observations by taking advantage of NERC ship-time available via the programme’s cruise plan and state-of-the-art technologies, particularly autonomous systems and novel sensing methods. Creation and deployment of new moorings is outside the scope of this funding opportunity.
Alongside this funding opportunity, the Net Zero Oceanographic Capability (NZOC) programme will provide proposals with an additional opportunity to build an enhanced use of autonomous platforms into their science plans. This NZOC science mission will be primarily shore launched and linked where possible to the programme’s cruise plan. Further details on the NZOC science mission and a webinar to inform development of science plans will be made available on the BIO-Carbon website on 18 January 2023. The webinar will take place on 31 January 2023. Proposals utilising the NZOC opportunity are encouraged to consider use of multiple vehicles.
Proposals should focus primarily on 1 of the programme’s 3 challenges. Proposals are however encouraged to additionally address aspects of the other 2 challenges, where complementary.
Applicants should ensure that they are aware of relevant previous and current research to avoid duplication and ensure that their proposal is focused on delivering leading edge research. Applicants are strongly encouraged to liaise with stage 1a projects to take advantage of their findings.
In addition to the usual scientific outputs, stage 1b projects will be required to make their preliminary findings available to inform the development of modelling project proposals addressing the next round of funding opportunities in stage 2. Applicants are therefore required to include a statement on how their projects will contribute to the development of these stage 2 proposals (see ‘Additional information’ section).
Proposals are required to include a section that clearly outlines the intended outcomes of the project and how they will make a significant contribution towards delivering the programme’s overall aims.
A community workshop will take place on 7 to 8 March 2023 to discuss the cruise plan for the BIO-Carbon programme, and more widely to support development of proposals. Outputs from the programme’s stage 1a gap analysis project will be presented to inform cruise planning discussions at this workshop. Other stage 1a projects will also present preliminary results relevant to stage 1b.
Proposers are encouraged to attend this workshop.
Proposals are required to develop science plans that take advantage of the BIO-carbon cruise plan, which will be confirmed by NERC shortly after the workshop. This plan will be informed by discussions at the workshop and advice from the BIO-Carbon Programme Advisory Group (PAG). The confirmed BIO-Carbon cruise plan will be made available in mid-March to those who have submitted a notification of intent.
In the first instance, principal investigators should approach the programme champion, Adrian Martin (firstname.lastname@example.org), for queries about fieldwork, whether cruise or NZOC related.
Once full proposals have been assessed (July 2023), NERC will invite the principal investigators of the 3 proposals recommended for funding to work together with the programme champion and National Marine Facilities. They will develop a final version of the BIO-Carbon cruise plan. This plan will efficiently accommodate all aims wherever possible within the £1 million funding available for National Marine Facilities support costs (for example, for technician, marine equipment, and autonomous system costs).
The final cruise plan is likely to comprise 1 to 2 joint BIO-Carbon research cruises. It will possibly be augmented by opportunistic involvement in other scheduled cruises, that will collectively meet the science plan requirements of all three proposals. In extreme instances, NERC may ask principal investigators to adjust science plans so that an affordable cruise plan can be agreed, and grants can be awarded.
Successful applicants will be required to present their findings to date at a community workshop in summer 2025 ahead of the release of the stage 2 funding opportunity. Following the 2025 workshop, the project teams are expected to engage with the community to facilitate the development of proposals for stage 2.
Projects will be required to provide progress reports to the BIO-Carbon PAG twice a year. At least 1 of these meetings will be held virtually.
The travel and subsistence costs for 3 members of each project team to attend in person meetings with the PAG once a year should be included in the costs of proposals.
The cost of attending the summer 2025 workshop should also be included in the cost of the proposal. However, where possible you should hold project meetings virtually as a more sustainable and cost-efficient alternative to in-person meetings and in line with the UK Research and Innovation travel policy.
Proposals can request funding for up to 36 months and must start by November 2023.
The full economic cost for a project will be up to £2,375,000. NERC will fund 80% of full economic cost for most UK costs, with some exceptions (see ‘What we will not fund’ heading).
3 projects will be funded, each primarily focusing on a different 1 of the programme’s 3 challenges. Collectively all funded projects will be expected to provide a broad coverage across all challenges.
We will fund 80% of the full economic cost for UK organisations:
- directly incurred costs such as staff payroll, travel and subsistence, and consumables
- directly allocated costs such as investigators’ salaries, estates costs and shared resources
- indirect costs such as research organisation administration
UK equipment is funded at 50% full economic cost.
Eligible international co-investigator costs (under the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis or Norway agreement) are funded at:
- 100% for eligible direct costs
- a maximum of 30% of the full economic cost value can be requested for all international costs
For eligible international co-investigators, we will fund:
- co-investigator salaries
- directly incurred (DI) costs (for example, travel and subsistence, consumables)
- research assistants
What we will not fund
For eligible international co-investigators we will not fund:
- estates and other indirect costs
- capital costs
- equipment over £10,000 (anything under £10,000 can be requested under DI costs)
NERC services and facilities
Proposals should include formal requests for NERC services and facilities (for example, high-performance computing (HPC) or isotope analyses) where relevant.
No additional funding is available to cover NERC services and facilities costs. Therefore, all costs associated with the use of NERC services and facilities (excluding any costs of National Marine Facilities capabilities that are provided by NERC ‘free at the point of use’) must be included within:
- the funding limit of proposals
- the directly incurred other costs of proposals
This applies to the costs associated with the National Marine Facilities pay-as-you-go autonomous platform, Autosub Long Range, if additional use is required to that provided by the NZOC science mission.
Prior to submitting a proposal, applicants wishing to use a NERC service or facility must contact the facility to seek agreement that they could provide the service required.
Applicants wishing to use most NERC facilities will need to submit a mandatory ‘technical assessment’ with their proposal. This technical assessment is required for aircraft but not for NERC marine facilities and HPC. For NERC, this means a quote for the work which the facility will provide.
A full list of the facilities requiring this quote can be found on the NERC website. Further information on NERC services and facilities can be found on the NERC website.
For NERC-relevant data, you must adhere to the NERC data policy. You should produce an outline data management plan as part of your proposal.
NERC will pay the data centre directly on behalf of your programme for archival and curation services. However, you should ensure that you request sufficient resources to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.
Read the NERC data policy.