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The Australian Coastal Zone and Global Change: Research Needs

Australian Academy of Science, Becker House, Canberra. Friday 16 December 1994

LOICZ science plan

Professor Stephan Kempe Background and Overview of LOICZ

The LOICZ Science Plan (IGBP Report no. 25, 1993) defines for the purposes of this Core Project, the coastal zone as:

"extending from the coastal plains to the outer edge of the continental shelves, approximately matching the region that has been alternatively flooded and exposed during the sea level fluctuations of the late Quaternary period."

The overall goal of this project is to determine at regional and global scales: the nature of that dynamic interaction; how changes in various compartments of the Earth system are affecting coastal zones and altering their role in global cycles; to assess how future changes in these areas will affect their use by people; and, to provide a sound scientific basis for future integrated management of coastal areas on a sustainable basis.

Like all IGBP projects, LOICZ is scheduled to run for 10 years. In December, 1004 the Scientific Steering Committee of the IGBP approved the Implementation Plan for the LOICZ Project and it has subsequently been published as IGBP Report No. 33 (IGBP, 1995). This Implementation Plan lays out the scientific goals and objectives and charts a course towards their achievement based on the co-ordination of nationally funded research. This co-ordination will require the continued leadership of the International Scientific Steering Committee and strong management on a day to day basis through the Core Project Office. Over 400 scientists were involved in developing the Science Plan published in 1993 and this network has already been extended to 1,700 scientists in 128 countries who have provided inputs to the development of this Implementation Plan.

In comparison with the relatively uniform environment of the sunlight zone of the open ocean, or the rapidly mixed environment of the atmosphere, the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of the world's coastal zones is considerable. There are as a consequence considerable methodological problems associated with developing global perspectives of the role of this compartment in the functioning of the total Earth system. Identifying and quantifying this role and developing scenarios of change in the coastal compartment of the Earth system under anthropogenic and geocentric driving forces of change will require a considerable body of research.

Recognising that no one project can adequately cover all aspects of coastal zone research LOICZ has identified in the Implementation Plan four main foci for research: the effects of changes in external forcing or boundary conditions on coastal fluxes; coastal biogeomorphology and global change; carbon fluxes and trace gas emissions; and economic and social impacts of global change in coastal systems.

Each research focus, described briefly below and in more detail in the Implementation Plan, provides a blueprint for the design of individual and national research, contributing to the overall goals of the LOICZ Project. In support of this research agenda there are several Framework Activities that are designed to provide a co-ordinating structure for the global research to be carried out by numerous researchers in various countries around the world. These Framework activities involve: scientific networking; development of a coastal typology; development of a data system plan; formulation of measurement standards, protocols and methods; modelling; and determination of the rates, causes and impacts of sea level change.

To ensure the production of useful global synthesis, LOICZ Integrative Activities are designed to provide a large scale regional view of various aspects of LOICZ research, designed to complement the site specific and national level research.

Together these three types of activity comprise the approach adopted by the LOICZ-SSC to addressing the overall goals and objectives of the project. Overhead 1 provides a schematic of how these different activities relate to one another.

Focus 1 and 3

As a consequence of the flooding of the continental shelves by sea level rise at the end of the Last Glacial Period, the continents are surrounded today by shallow seas, some of them over 1,000 km wide. Many of the inland seas, like the Baltic Sea and the Hudson Bay, did not exist 10,000 years ago, or like the Black Sea have become filled with salty water. The Black Sea, during the Pleistocene was the largest fresh water body on Earth, surpassing by far, all the freshwater existing on land today. This fringe of shallow sea, serves as a reaction vessel for all the material delivered both naturally and anthropogenically to the ocean, which in times of lower sea level, were discharged almost directly from land to the open ocean. In shallow water, nutrients, for example, can be recycled many times, before becoming finally fixed in the sediments or being exported to the open ocean. Therefore, a far higher productivity is maintained in the shallow seas of continental margins, than in most of the open ocean with positive effects on the harvest of fish and other frutti di mare. Annually, roughly 0.4 gigatons of organic carbon is dissolved and particulate form, reach the ocean via river discharge and may be partly or totally respired, thus forming a potential natural source of CO2 for the atmosphere. How much is actually respired is unknown, since apparently much of the riverine carbon (specifically the dissolved organic carbon) is highly inert and is mixed into ocean water conservatively. Furthermore, the anthropogenic input of nutrients (nitrate and phosphate) to the coastal sea via rivers and through direct waste discharge can now produce more biomass and may therefore constitute a new, additional sink for atmospheric carbon of the order of 0.07-0.12 Gt C a-1. Many of the uncertainties in global carbon flow models may represent unquantified processes occurring in the coastal zone.

Observations show that over the past few decades highly eutrophicated coastal seas, such as the North Sea, have significantly increased their seasonal amplitude (i.e., the difference between the winter and summer conditions) for almost all ecological and carbon cycle related parameters. The coastal seas are of prime interest to mankind since not only do they play an important role in the global carbon cycle (disturbed and undisturbed), but also their internal behaviour affects their high productivity. The amplitudes of natural cyclic processes cannot be increased indefinitely and it must be recognised that there may be a critical threshold, beyond which the system shifts suddenly to some other mode of functioning. If high rates of production occur during summer for example, organic matter can accumulate on the seafloor, where it is respired, until all the oxygen is depleted. At this threshold the system shifts from oxic to anoxic respiration, and sulphate is used as an oxygen donor. In this process H2S is generated, which kills all higher life in and on top of the sediment and in bottom waters as well.

Another threshold occurs when rapid photosynthesis draws the free CO2 from the water, increasing the carbonate ion concentration and the pH. Again, certain parts of the marine biota cannot tolerate such conditions and disappear from the water column, giving rise to the opportunity for massive blooms of a few species such as flagellates. The ability to effectively produce calcium carbonates is lost at too high a pH in many biomineralising organisms thus, potentially the narrow balance of alkalinity, supersaturation and total dissolved carbonate can be disturbed, with possible severe consequences for reefs, shell producing invertebrates and calcareous plankton. The processes involved, the cycling of carbon and nutrients, and the global significance of the coastal seas for the carbon cycle are therefore the primary research targets of LOICZ Focus Activities 1 and 3.

One example of the kind of support that LOICZ is providing to the integration of the various research activities is the effort to compile an index of river inputs to the coastal oceans. Land-derived carbon, nutrients, freshwater and sediments all enter the coastal zone at point inputs, the river mouths. Understanding the mechanisms which mobilise these materials in the catchment basin is a natural task of LOICZ and in Focus Activity 1 one of the aims is to build a model linking the continental water discharge with material transport. This will be based on a similarity analysis of river discharge behaviour, seasonally and inter-annually and will involve assembling a large data base of GIS-based river networks, long-term discharge curves, and material transport. LOICZ has already assembled a first draft of the basic river data in a databank GLORI (Global Land-Ocean River Input) for circulation and review.

Focus 2

In the context of global change impacts in the coastal zone, sea level rise has received considerable attention from the international community and public media. Eustatic sea level rise is however, relatively small (1-2 mm a-1) at present, and even with a warming and expansion of the mixed ocean surface layer and the melting of temperature land-based glaciers, global mean sea level will not rise more than a few decimetres in the next century. Of more immediate concern however, is the subsidence and recession of certain coastlines through natural or anthropogenically caused processes. The mining of oil, gas and water from deltas, and the sediment starvation of rivers through the world-wide increase in the number of reservoirs, and large scale irrigation and water diversion projects, causes regional, relative sea level changes which are an order of magnitude higher than eustatic sea level rise. Many highly productive and densely populated low-lying lands are currently threatened by such changes. Undisturbed coastlines counteract such recession by building beaches, sand spurs or coral platforms and filling lagoons with mangroves, peat or marsh. These interactions are the subject of biogeomorphological research which forms the topic of LOICZ Focus Activity 2.

Focus 4

Of central importance to the LOICZ Project are the interactions between man and the coastal ecosystem. The coastal zone occupies only about 8% of the plant's surface, but it accounts for approximately 20% of the total global primary production. Although only 5 to 10% of the world food production is based on marine resources, as much as 85-90% of present world fisheries production comes from the waters of the Exclusive Economic Zones and approximately 60% of the population of developing countries derive between 40-90% of dietary protein from marine sources. In addition to the direct harvest of food from coastal waters, much of the world's productive agricultural land is found in low-lying coastal areas and in the flood plains of major rivers.

As a consequence, coastal areas have always been favoured locations for human habitation, and present estimates suggest that about 60% of the world's population lives within 60 kilometres of the shorelines. Over two thirds of the World's cities with populations greater than 2 million inhabitants are located in coastal areas, often in the vicinity of highly productive estuaries or coastal wetlands. Coastal human populations in many countries are growing at approximately twice their national growth rates due to migration and urban drift to coastal locations and cities. In addition, the bulk of world tourism centres on marine and coastal environments, resulting in extremely high transient population densities during peak seasons. The increase in coastal populations is of considerable global concern given the high productivity of coastal areas, which is lost when land is occupied by infrastructure and housing or the sea is polluted with sewage and industrial effluents. It is suggested that the anthropogenically induced transfer of nutrients from land to the coastal ocean now exceeds that of natural rates of transfer, a condition reached in the case of sediments much earlier in human history.

The consequence is that many coastal areas are already stressed and or degraded and the driving forces for short to medium term change in these environments are anthropogenic. Focus Activity 4 of the LOICZ not only recognised that Global Climate Change will add new stress factors on all coastal ecosystems, influencing both their structure and behaviour, but also that direct, human-induced change to coastal systems could have major feedback to the global system as a whole. The suggestion that much of the world's in-shore waters are now being converted to more heterotrophic conditions than in the past has consequences not only for the global carbon cycle, but also for food production, whilst the estimate that 10-20% of the world's coral reefs are currently degraded beyond recovery by human action, has serious implications for global marine biodiversity.

The goal of Focus Activity 4 is to assess how the responses of coastal systems to global change will affect the habitation and use by humans of coastal areas, and to develop further the socio-economic basis for the integrated management of the coastal environment. In addition to recognising the importance of direct human-induced changes in the functioning of coastal systems, LOICZ Focus Activity 4 recognises that forecasting the evolution of coastal systems under different scenarios of global change requires the active participation of social scientists in the development of realistic scenarios. Such scenarios must encompass not merely the changes to the physical, chemical and biological components of the coastal sub-system of the biosphere-geosphere complex, but also realistic scenarios of land-use, human population growth and migration, consumption patterns and the use of coastal space and resources.

Developing realistic forecasts of change in coastal systems involves a further consideration, namely the feedback that exists between the coastal environment and coastal populations, hence the need to assess the socio-economic effects of alterations in the climatic, physico-chemical and ecological properties of the coastal zone.

LOICZ Framework Activities

The IGBP Core Projects, whilst global in scope, are necessarily dependent on research conducted at a smaller spatial scale, and the IGBP as a whole relives on nationally funded research to achieve its programme goals. Most of the research associated with the Foci Activities that will contribute to the specific goals of LOICZ will be funded and implemented through national mechanisms and agencies and will include specific national objectives which may not coincide with those of the LOICZ Core Project. To ensure co-ordination of results and the active participation of coastal scientists in contributing to the preparation of global syntheses and models, LOICZ will engage in diverse networking activities designed to both provide service to researchers and to ensure their continuing contribution to the work of the project.

In developing global syntheses and models, covering aspects of the role of the coastal sub-system in the Earth system, strong co-ordination of the results from research conducted in more narrowly defined spatial domains will be vital. Classically such co-ordination would have necessitated the development of a centralised facility for data management, storage and modelling however, in the context of modern information technology such a centralised management system is unnecessary. The overall philosophy for the development of the co-ordination functions within the LOICZ Core Project will place strong emphasis on networking, dis-aggregated data storage, and the use of modern information technology, where appropriate.

The LOICZ Core Project Office will provide the focus for co-ordination of Framework Activities, and Integrative Activities (Core Research) components that will be implemented through other designated centres that will include research and regional nodes.

One example of LOICZ Framework Activities is the development of a coastal typology. Financial and human resources to carry out LOICZ are finite and those available can be used more efficiently if they are focused in key geographic coastal regions. It is not necessary to conduct empirical studies in every coastal area of the world in order to develop global scenarios and predictive models since large areas of the coastal zone have similar properties. One of the most important initial tasks for LOICZ is to establish a global coastal zone classification system or typology based upon available scientific information, both descriptive and dynamic. This system will subdivide the world's coastal zone into a number of discrete, scientifically valid units on the basis of natural features and processes. The typology will be used as the basis for encouraging new research projects in coastal types which are under-represented in current research activities and for analysing and reporting results on a regional and global basis.

Integrative Activities

The research agenda laid out for each focus, represents specific activities which can be accomplished by individual scientists, institutions or national and in some instances regional, research groups. To compile the outputs from such studies into regional and global models, scenarios and/or predictions, will require considerable additional effort in terms of methods, database and model development, networking and liaison and the Framework Activities will provide some support. Even, with a comprehensive effort towards the Focus and Framework Activities, the possibility remains that the regional and global goals of LOICZ will not be met since the compilation and synthesis of results from small, isolated studies (small, in terms of either spatial domain or subject areas) will not necessarily provide insight and answers to global scientific issues and uncertainties involving the inter-relations between wider sub-sets of the total coastal system.

It is clear, therefore, that a number of Integrative Activities will need to be developed which encompass, most if not all of the specific research activities and tasks envisaged under a particular focus, or which address, in a cross-cutting manner, multiple activities from two or more foci. Two such Integrative Activities have been outlined so far covering i) the carbon cycle in coastal oceans and ii) the socio-economic impacts of global change on coastal systems. It is envisaged that further Integrative Activities will be developed in the near future addressing in particular the vulnerability of physical and biological processes in the nearshore zone to global change and the implications of such vulnerability for future human use of coastal areas.

The two Integrative Activities presently described are: The Role of Coastal Seas in the Global Carbon Cycle; and, Integrated approaches to assessing the economic and social impacts of global change on coastal systems. They have been developed as examples of the approaches which will be adopted by LOICZ to Core Research. Both of these activities encompass scientific issues considered to be of high priority at the present time and both are designed to provide a framework within which nationally funded and supported activities can be integrated to provide a wider regional and global perspective. Where possible, both will build on existing activities and integrate closely with related on-going initiatives implemented by other organisations and bodies. These Activities will also serve as the major interface between LOICZ and IGBP's Framework Activity Global Analysis, Interpretation and Modelling (GAIM).

In other respects, the two projects differ substantially. The first project entitled The Role of Coastal Seas in the Global Carbon Cycle addresses issues relating mainly to Focus Activities 1 and 3. In this respect, the Activity is cross-cutting and designed to provide a framework for overall integration of several different Tasks and Sub-tasks related to carbon in the coastal ocean. This Activity can only be implemented on a global basis since the heterogeneity of the world's coastal zones does not permit extrapolation of the results from individual models of limited spatial domain to a global scale. The structure of the regional components of this Integrative Activity will be based in part upon the output of the Framework Activity concerned with developing a global coastal typology. The proposed mode of implementation recognised that substantial infrastructural support and capacity building will be required in regions which encompass primarily developing countries and countries with economies in transition, since such countries are unlikely to accord high priority and therefore allocate scarce research funds to ascertaining the role of their coastal oceans in the global carbon cycle. It is unlikely therefore that site specific budget models and regional system models will be developed for these regions without substantial external support designed to enhance the indigenous capacity for research related to the carbon cycle of coastal oceans. Without the involvement of such countries, global syntheses and models cannot be produced and the goals of LOICZ cannot be met.

In contrast, the project entitled Integrated approaches to assessing the economic and social impacts of global change on coastal systems builds on existing regionally co-ordinated activities concerned with human use of and change in the coastal zone. This Integrative Activity addresses all components of Focus Activity 4 simultaneously and through the production of three large scale regional syntheses and models aim to develop a global synthesis and provide a solid scientific basis for future global scenario development.


Unlike many of the other Core Projects of the IGBP, LOICZ deals with a specific domain rather than a process and that domain is spatially extremely heterogeneous. To achieve the overall goals and objectives a truly global network of coastal scientists must be developed and the active participation of scientists of developing countries is vital to the ultimate success of this project. Support must, therefore, be provided through the Core Project to foster the research envisaged as being undertaken in such countries since their coastlines encompass the bulk of the world's tropical shores and are areas where the rates of anthropogenically driven change are considerable.

Whilst the goals of all LOICZ activities is to contribute to the scientific basis for sound management of the coastal zone, the proposed activities are not aimed at producing management guidelines, methodologies or approaches. LOICZ activities in this field will be undertaken in close collaboration with the Human Dimensions Program (HDP) and the coastal zone sub-group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will be designed to assess the extent to which scientific understanding of coastal zone processes and the nature of changes in these areas could contribute to formulating integrated management strategies that ensure sustainable use of coastal environments and resources.

OH 1: core project office

Overhead 1

Adequate support of the research agenda outlined in LOICZ will, over the course of the ten year life span of the project, provide models and data that will enhance the prospect of realising these wider goals of sustainable use and integrated management of coastal areas.