We use cookies to make your experience of our website better. To comply with EU regulations we need to ask for your consent to set these cookies. I agree |  No thanks |  Find out more

Skip navigation

Ecosystems Programme Summary

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonica).
King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonica).

Science Leader: Prof Eugene Murphy (ejmu@bas.ac.uk)


Polar ecosystems have global ecological and economic importance. They have unique biodiversity, play a major role in climate processes, and support indigenous communities and commercial fisheries. Polar ecosystems have adapted to cold and highly seasonal conditions, making them sensitive to climate and human impacts. Recent global, climate-driven changes, combined with expanding commercial fishing, threaten the balance of these unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems. By understanding their response, we can use them as a warning system for climate change across the planet.

The Ecosystems programme undertakes integrated analyses of Antarctic ecosystems and develops understanding of the large-scale operation of Arctic ecosystems and the role of polar ecosystems in the Earth System.

Programme Goals

  • To understand what determines the ability of species to adapt to change through genetic, physiological and ecological processes across a range of marine and terrestrial ecosystems
  • To develop quantitative descriptions of the life-cycles of species to determine their likely response to environmental change
  • To determine the resilience of polar ecosystems to past and current climate change to predict how they may respond in the future
  • To provide data and policy advice on key species and whole ecosystems to underpin further development of sustainable fisheries management in the Antarctic and beyond — fulfilling UK obligations under the Antarctic Treaty
  • To use regional ecosystem analyses (e.g. of the Scotia Sea and Antarctic Peninsula) to develop models of polar ecosystem dynamics (structure, interactions and biodiversity) to provide insight into the large-scale operation of bi-polar ecosystems.

Delivering the Results

Satellite tracks of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonica) to determine variability in their feeding ecology in relation to environmental changes such as sea surface temperature (SST)
Satellite tracks of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonica) to determine variability in their feeding ecology in relation to environmental changes such as sea surface temperature (SST)

The Ecosystems programme will use a range of approaches (e.g. in situ experiments, microcosms, incubations and observational studies) to explore how key polar populations respond to change. It will examine their flexibility in terms of ecology, physiology, biochemistry and genetics; determine biological limits of key species under current and future scenarios of temperature, ocean acidification, seasonality and desiccation; and compare the resilience of simple and complex communities.

By combining modelling and technical approaches (e.g. life cycle distribution models, hindcast approaches, and analyses of the underlying mechanisms), the Ecosystems programme will develop the means to predict the response of key species and populations to environmental change. It will model how changing key environmental conditions (e.g. food availability, temperature, seasonality, ice-cover) can affect species distribution and productivity, and biological performance (growth, maturation, reproductive output).

Analyses of the prey available to king penguins - ship-based acoustic surveys of lantern fish (Kreffichthys anderssoni and Electrona carlsbergi).
Analyses of the prey available to king penguins - ship-based acoustic surveys of lantern fish (Kreffichthys anderssoni and Electrona carlsbergi).

Using synthetic and comparative analyses, underpinned by integrated spatially-resolved ecological datasets, the Ecosystems programme will examine and model ecosystem structure and biodiversity. Simplified models of food-web structure and ecosystem operation will be used to predict the response of ecosystem structure to physical environmental changes.

Integrated field studies will be conducted simultaneously (e.g. tracking and aerial surveys of predators will be combined with ship-based surveys of their prey) and linked to laboratory and long-term data studies. The Ecosystems programme will carry out year-round monitoring of predators at Bird Island, summer sampling of predators at Signy Island, and annual sampling of krill and environmental data in the Western Core Box (northeast of South Georgia) to build on BAS’s long-term monitoring datasets.

National and International Context

The Ecosystems programme will help coordinate circumpolar-scale analyses of ecosystem operation, impacts of climate change, biogeochemical influences and effects of fisheries with the international community through programmes such as Integrating Climate and Ecosystem Dynamics (ICED) and Evolution and Biodiversity in the Antarctic (EBA) — part of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).

Programme Information

Science Leader:
Professor Eugene Murphy (ejmu@bas.ac.uk)

Related NERC Science Themes:
Earth System Science

BAS has strong involvement with the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) at both the working group and scientific committee levels. The Ecosystems programme will maintain this connection, and provide science and policy advice to help shape UK government policy under a number of multinational conservation and management agreements, particularly:

  • Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM)
  • Antarctic Treaty Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP)
  • Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
  • Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP)
  • International Whaling Commission (IWC)

The Ecosystems programme addresses the NERC Science Themes on Biodiversity, Climate System and Earth System Science. It particularly addresses the Biodiversity Theme challenges to improve understanding of the role of biodiversity in ecosystem processes, resilience and environmental change; and to enable society to predict and mitigate effects of biodiversity change on processes that sustain life.

Glossary of terms
In situ
To examine a phenomenon exactly in the place where it occurs (i.e. without moving it to some special medium or laboratory)
Artificial, simplified ecosystems that are used to simulate and predict behaviour of natural ecosystems under controlled conditions
Hindcast approach
A way of testing a mathematical model. Known or closely estimated inputs for past events are entered into the model to see how well the output matches the known results
Experiments in which organisms are maintained at a particular temperature for a set length of time, in order to measure physiological variables (e.g. growth).