Europe's seas and oceans are vitally important to the European Union, and the wider European context. These waterways are of enormous economic importance, as reflected by the fishery, tourism and shipping industries.
Moreover, knowledge of how human pollution affects fragile marine ecosystems is important to the well-being of the planet, human health and numerous sectors of the economy. In the context of climate change, understanding how sea levels rise is crucial to protecting and preserving the Union's coastal areas.
This highlights the enormous value and potential of marine research. However, although Europe's seas and oceans know no political boundaries, research in this vital area has traditionally been carried out nationally.
This has led to fragmentation, gaps in knowledge and, often, duplication of effort. "In Europe, there are hundreds of public and private marine data-collection laboratories which gather a wide range of data, on physical, geophysical, geological, biological and chemical parameters," says Michèle Fichaut, an oceanographic data manager at IFREMER, the French Research Institute for the Exploration of the Sea.
"However, the collected data are neither easily accessible nor standardised. In addition, the data are not always validated and the databases in which they are stored are not always secure," she adds.
Trawling oceans of data
Addressing this challenge requires efforts to link up the hundreds of separate marine research islands into an integrated archipelago of interconnected facilities. And this is exactly what the EU-backed SeaDataNet II project has succeeded in doing.
"SeaDataNet II is a leading network in Europe which provides access to ocean and marine metadata and datasets collected during research cruises or from monitoring activities in the European seas," explains Fichaut, who coordinates the network. "SeaDataNet is based on a semi-distributed system that incorporates and enhances the existing National Oceanographic Data Centres (NODC) network."
The four-year EU-funded project – which has received EUR 6 million in funding from the Seventh Framework Programme's Infrastructures theme – has developed a veritable Europe-wide virtual data centre. Accessed through a versatile portal, it is able to crunch the numbers provided by 44 partner organisations in over 30 countries to deliver integrated data, metadata and value-added products, including products focusing on the distribution of heat and salt concentrations, sea levels, currents, living marine resources and ecosystems. The SeaDataNet portal currently contains over a million data sets now widely available to the marine research community.
SeaDataNet II has helped to promote standardisation in European marine and ocean research. "SeaDataNet standards, including vocabularies and transport formats, have been adopted widely across the EU through collaboration with other European projects," notes Fichaut.
The project is also working to disseminate these emerging European standards internationally. "Standards developed by SeaDataNet will be submitted to the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC). In addition, they will also be made interoperable with standards developed in the United States and Australia," she continues.
SeaDataNet II is the continuation of a predecessor project of the same name, SeaDataNet, which ran from 2006 to 2011, received EUR 8.75 million in EU financing and built on a number of other Union-funded projects dating back to the 1990s, including MedAtlas (1994-1997) and SeaSearch (2002-2005).
The second phase of SeaDataNet seeks to further develop the system's infrastructure and make it more robust and state of the art. Efforts will focus on making the SeaDataNet system compliant with the EU's Inspire Directive, which seeks to promote the accessibility and interoperability of environment-related spatial information and services. Phase II will also seek to bring more data centres on board, as well as develop ways to monitor the infrastructure, create machine-to-machine interfaces, real-time cataloguing, and more.
Beyond research, the SeaDataNet infrastructure is an essential and effective contribution to the Marine Knowledge 2020 vision developed by the European Commission to bring together marine data from different sources and build up an observation system for smart and sustainable growth.
Participants: France (Coordinator), The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Italy, Russian Federation, Turkey, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Iceland, Estonia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Slovenia, Malta, Cyprus, Israel, Croatia, Lithuania