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Exploring the last great frontier
The oceans play a significant role in regulating the Earth’s climate and as source of natural hazards – yet there is much that we don’t understand about oceanic circulation or, indeed, the deep sea floor itself. That’s why a European network of deep water observatories is planned, says project coordinator Paolo Favali..
Oceans cover just over 70 per cent of the Planet’s surface, are home to thousands of species, generate hazards such as underwater volcanoes and tsunamis and play a pivotal role in influencing climate. Yet oceans remain the last frontier of exploration on Earth, with most of the sea floor having never been observed by human eyes.
That’s hardly surprising given the difficulties of penetrating to the oceans’ depths. But the combination of technological advances plus the growing understanding that long-term observation of our deep waters is vital to our understanding of their role in the environmental processes involved in climate change and other global-scale scientific issues has led to moves to establish deep-sea observatories around Europe.
The ESONET-NoE – the European Seas Observatory NETwork, Network of Excellence – project was set up by the EU in 2007 to encourage the scientific community to establish a network of deep water observatories and platforms around Europe. The goal is to enable the long-term monitoring of environmental processes in the geosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere of European seas for decades to come.
A long-term network of this scale is too big and costly for one country to fund – the rough estimate is €350 million to build it, with €4 million in annual maintenance and operational costs per observatory – which is why the network is a large-scale European Research Infrastructure. To enable it to be established, however, the legal and governance framework must first be determined.
That important task has been taken up by the European Multidisciplinary Seafloor Observatory (EMSO) which was launched in 2008 as a Preparatory Phase project as part of the EU’s 7th Framework Programme included in the ESFRI Roadmap (European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, http://cordis.europa.eu/esfri/ roadmap.htm), with 12 partners and €3.9 million of European Commission funding.
Coordinated by the Italian Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), the four-year EMSO-Preparatory Phase project is examining the legal, economic and research feasibility of the network and its long-term management, including a detailed cost analysis.
“The Preparatory Phase will establish the governance of the infrastructure, which will have its own legal form and will be implemented with the financial support of the member states participating in EMSO-Preparatory Phase,” says Paolo Favali, Research Director at INGV and coordinator of EMSO-PP. Those member states include Italy, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Norway and Turkey.
Apart from cost and management issues, there are also good scientific reasons why an international infrastructure is needed, he says: “Large datasets for crucial processes, like warming, need the use of standard sensors and standard procedures and methodologies. This is possible only with a common, centralised management.”
Regulator of climate
Oceans exert a great influence on the Earth’s environment, particularly as a regulator of climate. Understanding the link between natural and anthropogenic processes and ocean dynamics is essential for predicting the magnitude and impact of future changes in Earth’s climate, says Paolo Favali: “In recent years very extensive work has been done essentially by spatial surveys. What is absolutely lacking is the collection of long time-series of parameters allowing a knowledge of the phenomena, and, overall, their time variability. This aspect is crucial; for instance, we often speak about anomalies, but if we do not know what the ‘normal’ level is, how can we refer to ‘anomaly’? The long time-series will allow definition of what is normal.”
In addition, the way ocean and Earth science is conducted has changed, with more emphasis on sustained in situ observations rather than individual expeditionary investigations. “This change stems from the realisation that the Earth and its oceans are not static but are dynamic on many time and space scales, not just the short-time scales involved in catastrophic events,” explains Paolo Favali.
The underwater observatories will offer scientists new opportunities to study multiple, interrelated scientific processes over time scales ranging from seconds to decades and enable the long time-series collection of multiple variables at a fixed location. He adds: “The establishment of an observatory network, covering from the surface of the ocean along with the water column to the seabed beneath, will be essential to investigate global processes, such as the dynamics of the oceanic lithosphere and thermohaline circulation, and their reciprocal interactions.”
The key scientific challenges include understanding natural hazards, such as tsunamis, underwater volcanoes, earthquakes linked to seafloor tectonic structures or submarine landslides, as well as environmental changes such as differences in sea levels and changes in marine ecosystems, in the frame of the interactions between ocean (hydrosphere), biosphere and geosphere.
Capitalising on technological advances developed by the offshore oil & gas, space and telecommunications industries, the observatories will link marine sensors to the shore by acoustic or cable connection, enabling data on oceanographic, physical and chemical phenomena to be gathered in real or near-real time.
This is already happening in one of the 11 sites – the East Sicily observatory, located in an important offshore site close to Mount Etna and equipped with geophysical and oceanographic sensors. Managed by INGV, it is now transmitting data in real time via electro-optical cable to the National Seismological Service Centre in Rome, also managed by INGV, and represents EMSO’s first prototype operative node.
Unique geological characteristics
The other 10 sites identified for observatories have been chosen for their scientific, technological and socio-economic interests. They include Hausgarten in Fram Strait, the only deep connection between the central Arctic Ocean and the Nordic Seas, and the Black Sea, one of the largest regional seas of the Eurasian continent with many unique geological characteristics.
The Eastern Mediterranean EMSO sites will provide long-term investigation of seafloor processes where significant seismicity, special habitats in deep basins and a very steep drop off in depth from the coastlines occur. Geo-hazards will also be a focus of the observatories planned for the Iberian Margin in the Gulf of Cadiz, a complex region with the junction of the Eurasian and African plates resulting in doming of the seafloor, mud volcanoes and other features, and the Marmara Sea, one of the most active and hazardous areas in the European area.
The Norwegian observatory is located in a region that in the past has experienced major slides which, if repeated, could result in catastrophic damage to offshore oil & gas installations as well as indirect effects of tsunamis striking the British isles and elsewhere. In contrast, the Porcupine observatory in the North Atlantic is in a stable region but it contains important deep water habitats. Recent studies have shown the existence of a deep-water coral ecosystem belt stretching from northern Norway to North West Africa, extending into the Mediterranean Sea. This important biological resource is severely exploited in many places.
As well as the 11 sites, the Koster Fjord and Balearic Sea have been added for test purposes because their position on a shelf means they are easy to access; a mobile observatory will be deployed to develop and test emergency procedures.
A project of this scale and ambition inevitably faces major obstacles, including the difficulty of convincing European countries to provide the finance needed during a period of economic crisis. There are also major scientific and technological obstacles, says Paolo Favali. Seafloor observation is a young science and not enough is known of how materials and components will perform in deep water and under strong pressures; in some cases, such as long-term bio-geo-chemistry sensors, the technology does not yet exist.
Despite these obstacles, we are on the brink of “a new era of ocean exploration and interpretation”, says Paolo Favali: “Underwater observatories will not only greatly enhance ocean science and transform our understanding of the interactions between the hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere, but will also offer profound socio-economic benefits to Europe.”
Paolo Favali is a Geologist, Research Director at INGV with 30-year of experience in Natural Hazard and Earth Sciences. Untenured Professor of Earth Physics in Italian Universities (1994-2009). Coordinator and participant of EC projects. INGV Marine Unit Responsible (from 2001). Co-ordinator of EMSO-Preparatory Phase. EC Expert Evaluator since 2000. Author of about 75 papers on International Journals.
Published: Thursday, 19th August 2010 by Adelle Kehoe