Western Mail Profiles: Dr Paul Butler

‘Using the marine world to make sense of our own’

Dr Paul Butler is a Research Lecturer at the School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University, who uses the shell of a very special mollusc to investigate marine climate change.

WHAT about the weather this summer? It certainly hasn’t been very summery. We’ve seen long spells of wet weather, including the wettest June on record in Wales.

One question scientists are often asked is whether these episodes are related to the global warming that is resulting from the emission into the atmosphere of carbon from fossil fuels? This is not an easy question to answer, since there is a lot of natural variability in the system and it is very difficult to pin down the precise causes of local weather events. However, we know where the rain is coming from, so we can be fairly certain that the weather (and the climate) in Wales has a lot to do with the ocean.

I was brought up on the south coast of England and although I’ve spent most of my working life in London, I’ve always had an affinity with the marine world.

That’s why, when I decided to make a radical career and lifestyle change in my late 40s, I chose to come to Bangor and study ocean sciences. I don’t think I’ve ever looked back. After I’d been at Bangor for four years I got the chance to do a PhD project, looking at how seashells from around the Irish Sea could be used as recorders of the marine environment.

I was excited by this idea, especially because I thought it could be important new science. While we can look into the land environment of the past few thousand years in great detail by using tree-rings, there has not so far been any equivalent way of studying the history of ocean climate. But if you look at the outside of a seashell, you’ll see a pattern of concentric rings, looking very much like tree-rings.

My project was to find out whether the similarity was more than skin deep. I had to find shells with long lifespans (ideally, hundreds of years) and I had to make sure that the patterns of their rings were synchronised.

If the shells had these two qualities, they could be used to monitor marine climate, potentially for thousands of years.

To cut a long story short, my colleagues and I have found a species (the ocean quahog, whose shell is common around the coasts of West and North Wales) which can be used in this way. In fact one animal, found off the north coast of Iceland, had lived for 507 years, making it the longest-lived individual animal known to science.

Over the next few years and decades, scientists will find out much more about how the Earth’s climate works and will gradually build a store of knowledge about how the increasing heat in the system is affecting regional weather patterns, such as the storm tracks which bring rains and winds to Wales.

The marine domain is a key part of the Earth system, and I expect the work we do at Bangor will contribute to scientific understanding and ultimately to human resilience in the face of what will certainly be very challenging changes to the climate and the environment.

To contact Paul please email p.g.butler@bangor.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 17th September, 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.