Lab on the ocean wave

December 5, 1997

Las Palmas. The Canaries are an almost perfect laboratory for oceanography - "like having a ship in the middle of the ocean", says Santiago Hernandez, assistant dean of the University of Las Palmas faculty of marine science.

Research at Spain's first faculty of marine science ranges from the strictly local, such as looking at fish stocks or coastal management, to the international, involving seal colonies in Mauritania, global pollution, ocean currents and climate change.

The faculty was established in 1982 as a multi-disciplinary centre that applies chemistry, physics, maths, biology and geology to the study of the world's oceans.

Jose Luis Pelegr! leads a project studying ocean currents between the Canaries and the Straits of Gibraltar.

Part of a larger study funded under the European Union's MAST programme, it involves more than 20 institutions.

Dr Pelegr!'s team is concerned with mapping the movements of water from the nearby African coast through the archipelago.

The trade winds that give the Canaries their temperate climate also act to push surface water away from the coast of Africa, thus sucking up colder water into the vacuum from the ocean bed which is rich in nutrients.

This mechanism gives the coastal waters of Western Sahara and Mauritania their plentiful fish stocks and also accounts for the filament of colder water that passes through the islands.

The team takes regular trips on cargo boats from Lisbon and Cadiz to measure the temperature and composition of the ocean at different depths.

This data is supplemented by satellite images and occasional journeys on the Spanish research ship, the Hesperides, as it passes through on its annual visit to the Antarctic.

"In terms of climate change this information is fundamental," says Dr Pelegr!. "Colder water, for instance, can absorb more heat."

Information on the distribution of nutrients in the ocean could be used to alert fishing fleets as to where fish stocks are likely to be and to avoid overfishing.

On a more mundane level, knowledge of currents around the Canaries could guide the islands' waste disposal and lessen the environmental hazards.

The faculty's undergraduate course now attracts students from all over Spain, over 50 per cent of the intake is from outside the Canaries.

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