RISING sea temperatures are forcing fish and other marine life to move or face extinction.
A leading marine scientist warned yesterday that action is needed to ensure vulnerable species survive the increased global warming which is forecast to continue over the next century.
Professor Mike Burrows, a marine ecologist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) near Oban, led a team of international scientists in the preparation of a new report into the effects of climate change on marine life.
A key finding highlights how marine life living in the Mediterranean and the North Sea, are particularly at risk because they are trapped by coastlines, with no direct route to the North Atlantic or Indian oceans, which could offer them refuge.
The scientific paper, published today, shows how fast, and in which direction, local climates have already shifted - crucial information for anticipating the future. The research also pinpoints vulnerable areas, which will help focus conservation efforts.
Professor Burrows said: "In an unprecedented period of climate change, economic development and fast growing demand on an already pressured planet, we need to act fast to make sure as much of the world's living resources survive that change.
"Knowing the areas of potential vulnerability to the effects of blocked shifts can help focus conservation efforts."
He added: "When, in a particular location, temperatures exceed the upper limit for a certain species, that species can no longer live there.
"Likewise, when temperatures in another place become warmer than a species' lower limit, that place can become newly habitable. This analyses shows where you'd expect to see species relocations."
Previous studies have identified numerous fish and invertebrate species that have shifted their geographic distribution towards cooler regions.
In the North Sea, for example, the centre of distribution of cod has moved as much as 100km northwards in 40 years (1961-2001), while in the same period, plankton in the North East Atlantic have shifted 1000km.
A spokesman for SAMS said: "While some species may be able to adapt fast enough to changes in their environment and while others may disperse to colonise new habitats with thermal conditions they can tolerate, there will be species that can neither adapt nor move. Those species are likely to go extinct."
Professor Burrows said: "Mapping these areas around the globe shows those places where biodiversity may be compromised by climate change, alongside all the other threats to life in an increasingly crowded and developed world."
Complex patterns of temperatures and varying rates of change around the globe make it hard to predict the consequences of these changes.
But the study sheds more light on the effects that warmer seas will have on biodiversity. The study, entitled Geographical Limits To Species - Range Shifts Are Suggested By Climate Velocity, is being published this week in the journal Nature.
Meanwhile, the Met Office's chief scientists has said that climate change almost certainly lies behind the storms that have been lashing Britain this winter.
Dame Julia Slingo said while there was not yet definitive proof, all the evidence pointed to a role for the phenomenon.
She delivered a grim warning that the country should prepare itself for more similar events.
The comments provide the strongest link yet made by the Met Office between the intense weather and climate change.
Dame Julia said the "clustering and persistence" were extremely unusual. She said: "We see things that support the premise that climate change has been making a contribution."