How do storms in the UK affect marine life?
3 minute read
In the midst of one of the most active storm seasons on record here in the UK, we look at the impact of stormy weather on the health and biodiversity of our ocean and the marine life that live within it.
Why are we seeing more storms in the UK?
Findings published by The Met Office explain that the position and strength of the jet stream is responsible for our recent bought of stormy weather - which has been putting us directly in the path of deepened lower pressure systems.
The majority of climate projections suggest that overall, our climate will continue to get wetter and stormier – with worsening impacts on our British coasts due to rising sea levels.
A recent article reported that the rise in sea temperatures has led to intensified weather. The temperature of our ocean is the greatest indicator we have for global warming, with 2023 reported to be the warmest year on record and 2024 currently at 1 in 3 odds of surpassing this, according to scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Find out more about the impact of rising ocean temperatures on marine life
The impact of storms on marine life and habitats
The most recent storm, Jocelyn, caused winds of up to 96 mph, agitating seawater and causing toxins produced by algae to become airborne in a phenomenon known as seafoam in Ireland. But the impacts of storms on the UK coasts don’t stop there, what’s happening under the waves is also a cause for concern.
As the intensity and frequency of storms increases, so does the damage to marine habitats, which hampers their ability to recover. Seagrass beds provide coastal communities with vital protection from erosion, and the energy of powerful waves generated during storms. However, in England alone, seagrass beds have declined by up to 90% in the past century, affected by disease, pollution, marine development and infrastructure, and boating activity. This has also left many marine animals that rely on these habitats vulnerable.
Seabed habitats, and wildlife that are located within Marine Protected Areas, have been shown to recover faster from the effects of storms when compared to unprotected areas. This highlights the impact of ongoing and repeated pressure from human activities such as trawling on our marine ecosystem and its ability to recover from extreme weather events.
Without seagrass, many coastal communities are vulnerable to increased erosion, especially during storms. The socio-economic impact of the loss of coastal defence species is huge, with the economic value of our seas and coastal habitats estimated to be £211 billion by The Office for National Statistics. Storm damage to our coastline could, in turn, lead to a greater cost to coastal communities, with an increasing need to invest in man-made defences such as seawalls when nature-based solutions – such as seagrass and kelp – are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Read more about protecting the values of our ocean in our manifesto of our seas.
The link between storms and sewage in our ocean
Extreme weather events, including storms and flooding, increase the amount of plastic and chemical pollution through sewage discharges and flood waters carrying pollution into our seas. Increased levels of sewage-related litter on our beaches indicates that storm overflows are frequently being used during rainy spells to dump untreated sewage into our waters. In 2022 alone, water companies discharged sewage through storm overflows more than 300,000 times, including into Marine Protected Areas, putting both wildlife and people at risk.
Untreated sewage is a major stressor to seagrass, the powerhouse of our coasts, as it contains excess nutrients and pathogens that encourage the growth of algae. These algal blooms reduce the productivity of seagrass by diminishing light availability and smothering seagrass leaves.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, our Principal Specialist of Marine Protected Areas, urges governments, industries, and citizens to take action: "We need to properly enact our existing laws, policies and strategies to reduce pollution and the effects of rising temperatures on our seas. We need the health of our planet and its future to be taken seriously.”
We should be very concerned about the impacts of extreme weather and sewage pollution on our ocean.
We're working for a cleaner, better protected and healthier ocean for everyone to enjoy, and so, we call on all Parties to act to address the crisis facing our ocean.