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Gerold Wefer, director the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences ( MARUM ) in Bremen, Germany, and chairman of the recent international workshop "Marine Science Frontiers," outlines Europe's current efforts to develop a Marine Science Plan. In his reflection on the recent workshop, Wefer tells us where the marine sciences are heading and what research fields might become hot.

Marine research programs require international cooperation and long-term planning, due to the complexity of the investigated processes and the enormous costs involved. Therefore the Marine Board of the European Science Foundation has taken on the task of establishing a planning structure for Europe for the next 5 years in the scope of a Marine Science Plan. An initial step was the preparation of a strategy paper Towards a European Marine Research Area.

Europe's Marine Science Plan, which should be completed by the end of 2001, involves numerous workshops, including a Hanse workshop relating to Ocean Margin Systems held in Bremen in November 2000 and a workshop with the topic Marine Science Frontiers for Europe, also in Bremen, in February 2001. Topics discussed during the workshops give a representative overview of the most relevant research fields for the near future:

  • Ocean-climate coupling, variability, and change

  • Coupled biogeochemical cycling and controlling factors

  • Coastal and shelf processes, science for integrating management

  • Ecosystem functioning and biodiversity

  • Ocean margin systems

  • Discussions dealing with ocean-climate coupling concentrated on ocean-atmosphere variability in the Atlantic and its relationship to European climate. Climate variability in the Atlantic sector comprises the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Tropical Atlantic Variability, and the ocean's overturning circulation, the MOC. Although recent advances have been made in understanding the mechanisms that underlie these modes of variability, long-term observations are necessary to detect how the thermohaline circulation of the ocean is changing due to natural variability and/or increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    The working group on coupled biogeochemical cycling and controlling factors dealt with questions regarding the role of plankton diversity, how ocean biogeochemistry will respond to global changes on decadal to centennial time scales, the key biogeochemical links between the ocean, atmosphere, and climate, and the role of estuaries, shelves, and marginal seas in the capturing, transformation, and exchange of terrestrial and open-marine material.

    Topics of discussion regarding science for integrated management of coastal and shelf processes included natural variability of the coastal zone in space and time, experimental management, potential roles of different species, assemblages and habitats in coastal systems, effects of changing nutrient regimes, and perturbations of food-web dynamics. It was proposed that critical management issues affecting the sustainable use of European coastal regions be identified.

    Marine organisms play a dominant role in the biogeochemical processes in the ocean. The rates and the efficiency of these processes are influenced by interactions between organisms and their environment, which are far from being understood. Therefore, the relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functions have to be quantified, in order to predict the consequences of either changing ecosystem functions or decreases in biodiversity.

    Principle topics of the ocean margin systems workshop were microbial systems in sedimentary environments, fluid flow and subsurface material transport, margin building/regulating processes, and benthic population dynamics and relationships to sedimentary settings. In addition to scientific issues, technological requirements and the development of new tools and laboratory techniques were discussed.

    During the first part of 2001 other workshops have been held or will be organized to provide scientific and strategic inputs to the integrated marine science plan for Europe. Examples are a conference on marine coastal biodiversity, a workshop on marine technology and meetings of socio-economic and public awareness working groups. A major effort will also be dedicated to validate the content of the science plan through a large consultation of the scientific community and stakeholders on the website of the ESF Marine Board.