Ocean science is a perfect example of the benefits of an ERA, says Busquin
The Liège colloquium on ocean hydrodynamics earlier in May gave the European Commissioner for Research, Mr Philippe Busquin, an opportunity to present his ideas for a European Research Area. Oceanographic research requires a multidisciplinary approach on an international level and projects are often conducted on a large scale and to great expense. Yet projects such as OMEX - the ocean margin exchange project - are considered crucial for understanding our environment as they enable scientists to learn how chemicals - like carbon - become locked up in the oceans, released or transformed into other compounds. OMEX has now been heralded by Commissioner Busquin as a prime example of where pooling of resources in a European Research Area is vital to exploit the potential for research on the EU. The OMEX team, which involved almost 40 institutions from all the European countries bordering the Atlantic, studied the very productive ecosystems at the continental shelf edges of the Northeast Atlantic. The researchers believe their work has identified important processes for climate change and the project is considered one of the flagship activities of EU-funded marine research. The project aimed to improve scientists' understanding of the processes going on at the border of the continental shelf, where coastal water mixes and joins the open ocean. This complex system has rarely been studied, leaving a gap in scientists' knowledge - particularly of the carbon-cycle - which is crucial for understanding fluctuations in carbon dioxide in our environment. As recent results from other research projects indicate that more than one third of carbon dioxide emitted by human activities is transferred to the ocean, researchers believe the oceans must play a crucial role in limiting the warming of the earth (due to the greenhouse effect). The OMEX researchers are therefore studying the two main processes by which the ocean can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Bubbles of carbon dioxide trapped in sea water could either dissolve into solution or can be consumed by phytoplankton during photosynthesis, eventually becoming incorporated into the food chain. As animals die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, they would take their store of carbon to their tombs in the ocean sediment, where it could remain for hundreds to thousands of years. As the coastal shelf margins are known to be particularly rich in plant and animal life, the OMEX scientists wanted to study the processes driving carbon circulation in this region, to find out more about the ocean's role in climate change. They studied two contrasting sites at the Northeast Gulf of Biscay and the Iberian coast of the North Atlantic. The study was supported by the European Commission's MAST programme under the Fourth RTD Framework Programme. It brought together researchers from ten countries, including physicists, chemists, biologists, sedimentologists and modellers. Between 1993 and 1999, the researchers went on about 60 oceanographic cruises, an expensive exercise, mainly supported by the participating countries. The scale and cost of such a project served to highlight the need for a European Research Area, the Research Commissioner told researchers at the Liège meeting: 'Marine science in the Community research programmes is an excellent example of an area where European cooperation is a prerequisite for understanding the mechanisms of the complicated processes that take place in our environment and have an impact on our lives. The European marine environment is something we all share. Due to its importance in global climate change, EU research cooperation is an essential element in the international efforts for a better understanding of global processes.'