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QUADRAT DTP: Assessing the vulnerability of marine ecosystems to climate change in the North East Atlantic

Project Description

Climate vulnerability is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, the adverse effects of climate change. Vulnerability assessments provide a framework for semi-quantitatively evaluating climate impacts over a broad range of species occupying a given ecosystem. Each species is expressed with respect to two separate axes, exposure and sensitivity, which in combination indicate their relative vulnerability. Similar to how risk assessments are used, vulnerability assessments identify the species most vulnerable to continued warming.

Vulnerability assessments of regional and global marine ecosystems have proliferated. Because detailed knowledge for all relevant species within a marine ecosystem is never available, relatively rapid trait-based vulnerability assessments are widely used. They assume that the biological traits underlying sensitivity and adaptive capacity will determine the species response to climate exposure (Spencer et al. 2019). The results of climate vulnerability assessments are being used for informing the management of commercial fish and shellfish stocks (Hare et al. 2016) and guiding policymakers to identify priorities for adaptation planning (Pecl et al 2014).

The North Sea is considered a global hotspot of warming with the west coast of Scotland and Irish Sea also warming. Climate change impacts on the distribution, growth rates, and phenology of marine species have already been detected in these waters. Comprehensive vulnerability assessments have not, to date, been undertaken for UK waters. Therefore, it is difficult to specify which marine species at greatest risk from continued warming or, conversely, which species could be comparatively resilient to warming.

The overall aim of this PhD research will be to undertake a trait-based vulnerability assessment of the UK marine ecosystems by evaluating both the exposure and sensitivity of individual species. The project will begin by reviewing a range of methodologies that are applied to both data-rich (Spencer et al 2018) and data-limited marine ecosystems in order to determine which approach is most suited to the data available for UK waters. Applying the methodology, the project will identify the following: i) species that are likely to have a higher vulnerability to climate change; (ii) critical knowledge gaps for key species; and (iii) priorities for adaptation planning. Communicating the results of the project to both government (Marine Scotland - Science) and the fishing industry (e.g., Scottish Fishermen’s Federation) will be a priority.

The project depends on detailed data and expert knowledge of species biology. As the North Sea is a well-studied marine ecosystem a wide range of comprehensive databases are available. Projected future values of range of exposure factors (e.g., temperature) for these regional seas are available from UK Meteorological Office (UKCP18; https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/). Sensitivity of many species can be evaluated using online resources including Datras and Fishbase. To inform assessments of exposure existing species distribution models (from the international Marine Climate Change Centre, iMC3, at Cefas) will be used to determine whether a species responds to climate change by: i) tolerating changing condition in situ; ii) shifting the range to track climate conditions to which they are adapted; or iii) evolving tolerance or dispersal capability.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the ‘Visit Website’ to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Hare, J.A., et al. 2016. A vulnerability assessment of fish and invertebrates to climate change on the northeast U.S. continental shelf. PLoS ONE, 11(2). e0146756. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0146756

Pecl, G.T., et al. 2014. Preparing fisheries for climate change: identifying adaptation options for four key fisheries in South Eastern Australia. Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, Project 2011/039

Spencer,P.D., et al. 2019. Trait-based climate vulnerability assessments in data-rich systems: an application to eastern Bering Sea fish and invertebrate stocks.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 89.42

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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