A lot more than simply salt water

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Seas and oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. They provide us with food and natural resources and have served as trading routes for hundreds of years. Coastal areas and beaches around the world attract billions of people. The seafloor is home to a diversity of species that has yet to be discovered. But this precious ecosystem is in danger:industrial sewage, domestic waste, fishing nets, agricultural fertilisers and oil spills at sea – much of what humans produce and ultimately discard ends up in the oceans.

The seas are the focus of many research institutions

Turtle under Water

Many research institutions in Germany focus on marine-related topics. 17 of them specialise in marine research. They are based in the harbour towns along Germany’s nearly 4,000 kilometres of North and Baltic Sea coastline, from where they operate observatories in the deep sea and embark on research expeditions to the polar seas. They study marine currents with a view to better understanding climate change or search for ideas about how to organise fishing so that fishermen can make a living but at-risk fish species still have a chance of survival.

 

What can be done about the plastic plague in our oceans?

Biologists from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven are engaging with a problem that hardly anyone ever mentioned up until a few years ago: plastic waste, of which an estimated 100 to 150 million tons are to be found drifting in our seas. The researchers sift through it and examine what remains – minute particles of plastic that they have already discovered in numerous species of fish, mussels, crabs and other crustaceans. There are still gaps in the data, however: it is not yet known just how much plastic is polluting the seas and which types of litter come from where. There has also been little research into the effects on plants and animals and – via the food chain – on humans.

The world’s seas need cross-border research

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has responded to the problem by initiating a Europe-wide research programme “Microplastics in Marine Systems”. As Federal Research Minister Professor Johanna Wanka explained when the programme was officially launched in September 2015, “Microplastics in the sea is a cross-border problem that requires an internationally coordinated approach”. Ten nations are spending 7.5 million euros on four research projects. The programme is being coordinated under the umbrella of the European research platform JPI Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans. Germany also committed itself to combating plastic waste during its G7 presidency in 2015, with the result that Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States agreed on an action plan. Furthermore, the G7 countries intend to coordinate their research activities.

Year of Science: discovering, using and protecting the sea

Dialogue with the general public is just as important as research, which is why Germany’s federal research minister – in cooperation with the “Wissenschaft im Dialog” (i.e. Science in Dialogue) initiative – launched the Year of Science 2016*17 “Seas and Oceans”: “The seas and oceans are a source of food, an economic space and they influence our climate. This is what we want to show the public”, said Johanna Wanka, talking about the Year of Science. Between June 2016 and September 2017, events will be staged in line with the slogan “Discover. Use. Protect” – and the public is invited to get involved. Such as in the project “On the Track of Plastic Waste”, which sees pupils from Chile and Germany beachcombing for this dangerous waste and investigating its origins. After all, they too will determine the future of the oceans.

 

More information

Year of Science 2016*17 “Seas and Oceans”

The seas and oceans play a key role in sustaining life. One in three of us uses the seas as a source of food; most of our goods are transported by sea, and there are considerable natural resources to be found on the seafloor. In addition, the oceans absorb a large part of the carbon dioxide we produce. Nonetheless, they are recklessly exploited and polluted in many cases. What significance do the seas and oceans have for our lives, how can they be protected, and what risks do the seas face? These are the questions that will be explored by the Year of Science 2016*17 “Seas and Oceans” launched by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the “Wissenschaft im Dialog” initiative. Several hundred events, discussions, exhibitions and competitions will be taking place all over Germany. 

www.wissenschaftsjahr.de