Deep in Davy Jones's locker lies Earth's final frontier...

May 27, 2005

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world.

... and scientists are meeting to continue the international collaboration needed to to reveal its secrets, says Harriet Swain

Landlocked Paris may seem an odd choice of venue for a meeting of oceanographers. But there is more logic to the location of the 2005 International Ocean Research Conference than the quality of the city's seafood platters. The conference is being held at the headquarters of Unesco, which has teamed up with the US-based Oceanography Society to be a sponsor through its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

The IOC was founded in 1960 on the basis that "while pioneering research and new ideas usually come from individuals and small groups, many aspects of oceanic investigations present far too formidable a task to be undertaken by any one nation, or even a few nations".

The international nature of ocean research will be a key element of the conference, which aims "to report and reflect on recent advances in ocean research and to help define the coming decade of international collaboration". Among the 350 delegates will be representatives from disciplines including geology, applied technology and geophysics as well as policymakers. Participants will come from more than 40 countries, including former Soviet republics and other countries surrounding the Black Sea.

This is important because Black Sea oceanography is one of the main conference themes. The Black Sea is a "small ocean" system that can be especially sensitive to global changes. It is of particular interest because it has been subjected to intense eutrophication, receiving excess nutrients that stimulate plant growth. This reduces the amount of oxygen in the water when the plant material decomposes, causing the death of other organisms.

Such harmful algal blooms are another conference theme, closely linked to two others: molecular evolution and diversity of the oceans, and biogeochemical cycles of trace elements and implications for marine ecosystems. This is something Raymond Pollard, senior oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, will address. He will be reporting on the results of a research cruise looking at absorption of iron in the ocean and how it affects the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

When phytoplankton - the plants at the beginning of the ocean food chain - die, those that remain uneaten sink, locking away their carbon.

Pollard suggests that parts of the ocean that have more iron have more plant growth. He describes iron as a "biological pump", which many things need to grow, and argues that it has to be taken into account in decisions about how to tackle global warming.

Another British oceanographer who will be looking at biogeochemical cycles is Tim Jickells, professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a member of the conference steering committee. He will give a session showcasing some of the ideas behind a programme to undertake a global survey of trace elements in the ocean. It will combine the work of geologists and oceanographers, using information gleaned from fossils to help interpret the chemistry of the modern ocean.

For this, international collaboration will be essential, especially to gather information from areas of the ocean that have so far been little sampled. But Jickells says the project will need to include helping some of the countries involved to develop enough expertise and lab capacity to conduct the sophisticated measurements involved.

He says that advances in technology, such as satellites that can look at the whole ocean in one go, have helped to make projects such as this global survey possible. But the expense involved means that it is vital to make it an international exercise. If well-equipped ships are being sent into little-known waters, they must carry as many scientists and experiments as possible to make ocean research cost-effective. "This is why we need meetings such as this," he says. "Because of the fantastic opportunities for networking."

As well as looking at recent research, including polar ecosystems and the distribution of marine organisms in the oceans, the conference will explore some technological advances that have made this research possible. It will include sessions on the use of autonomous underwater vehicles, remote sensing and data modelling.

It will discuss ocean exploration. The organisers say that most of the deep ocean remains unknown and that countries are becoming aware of the need for exploration. They predict that future exploration will involve more international collaborations "to maximise the science and efficacy of exploring the Earth's final frontier".

The 2005 International Ocean Research Conference takes place at Unesco's headquarters in Paris, June 6-10.

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