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Brussels, November 17, 1999

EU marine research finds Mediterranean a sensitive indicator of climate change

Keywords: marine ecosystems, climate change, environment

All good things come to an end, and after six years of research in two phases the European Union's Mediterranean Targeted Project has ended with a presentation of the most significant results at a workshop in Perpignan on 28-30 October. Amongst the many scientifically and socio-economically significant results is the conclusion that the Mediterranean provides an extremely sensitive indicator of the effects of climate change on the world's oceans. Couple this with the demonstrated influence of such changes on marine productivity in the Mediterranean, and you have a powerful predictor of the likely effect of future changes worldwide. Other results included the influence of Saharan dust and human input on nutrient (phosphorus) levels, with consequent effects on fisheries and tourism.

The second phase of MTP, known as MATER, involved over 300 scientists from 13 different countries based in 54 separate laboratories. The project received EU funding amounting to ECU 10.8 million. Besides many laboratory experiments and model development, the project spent over 1000 days at sea collecting and analysing data on the physical, chemical and biological processes that help shape ocean ecosystems. The project also involved increasing numbers of young scientists, and served as an important model for similar studies in other regional seas such as the South China Sea.

Strong sensitivity

Researchers found compelling evidence that dramatic changes -in deep-water circulation related to temperature, and salinity originate in relatively small incremental changes in the Mediterranean's heat and fresh-water budgets. This indicates a strong sensitivity of the Mediterranean to climatic and environmental changes. In 1999, in the western Mediterranean, the project observed abnormalities in the temperature, salinity and movement of new deep water formed in February compared with 1993-1998.

Climate change influences marine productivity

The MTP's final workshop in Perpignan demonstrated that climate change affects marine productivity. Future climatic changes can thus have a profound influence on ocean productivity and the sensitivity of the Mediterranean - a kind of "coal-miner's canary" for the world's oceans - could allow these to be predicted.

Phosphorus controls phytoplankton growth

From model simulations in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, there is evidence that both phytoplankton and bacteria are phosphate rather than nitrate limited, i.e. it is phosphorus rather than nitrogen that is determinant for their growth. In the open sea, one of the main factors in the input of phosphorus is Saharan dust; researchers showed that up to 30% of its phosphorus content can be dissolved when entering the sea surface, thus providing nutrients to phytoplankton. Chernobyl in the Mediterranean

There is clear evidence - especially in the Northern Adriatic - of the Chernobyl disaster in terms of increased levels of 137Cs. This was detected through the use of new models of the movement of soluble pollutants, devised and validated as part of the project. Scientists commented that the isotopes are now decreasing in surface waters, but it is expected that larger quantities will soon be found in deep waters.

Anthropogenic phosphorus levels on the increase

The project observed an annual 3% increase in phosphorus input of human origin in coastal zones of the western Mediterranean. This build up leads to harmful increases in biological activity and local eutrophication with a potential negative effect on tourism (e.g. harmful algae), and fisheries. These growth rates will enable scenarios for the evolution and monitoring of the Mediterranean ecosystem to be constructed from the basic pollution determined by the project, which amounted to 1.6 kg of phosphorus per person per year on the watershed.

Trans-Mediterranean voyage

The last voyage of the project, in June 1999, allowed 22 scientists and 28 students on an advanced study course to investigate the major functional processes of the Mediterranean ecosystem, especially with regard to climatic fluctuations and anthropogenic disturbances. It also served to promote cooperation between the EU and countries around the Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and Tunisia. It was combined with an advanced study course on the Mediterranean Marine System (also funded by the EU's MAST programme) held partly on-board the Aegaion, which belongs to the Greek National Centre for Marine Research, and partly at the University of Barcelona.


The Mediterranean Targeted Project has been the subject of many articles in the scientific and popular press. It is now also the subject of a five-part television series to appear on the French educational channel La cinquième between 20 and 24 December.

Note for Editors:

A special issue of the international journal, Progress in Oceanography, entitled "Progress in Oceanography of the Mediterranean Sea - Dedicated to Professor Paolo Fasella" will be published this month. Professor Fasella was Director-General for Research at the European Commission from 1981 to 1995. This issue presents peer-reviewed papers of the results of the first phase of the MTP project.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Elisabeth Lipiatou
Scientific Officer, Research DG
Fax: +

Mr Stephen Gosden
Press and Information Officer, Research DG
Fax: +

The Mediterranean Targeted Project

Pilot phase (1993-1996)

The Mediterranean Targeted Project (MTP) was established in 1993 by the European Commission under the MAST Programme and had an overall budget of ECU 11 million. The Commission proposed combining 10 different projects (see attachment), involving 70 institutions from 14 countries, into one overall project (MTP-I) so that research efforts in the Mediterranean Sea could be better coordinated, leading to the creation of a European community of scientists involved in Mediterranean research. The project was coordinated by a Steering Committee led by the MAST programme scientific officer. At that time, most of the scientists involved did not know each other well and normally performed research in small groups and in specific disciplines focused on the marine regions close to their home country.

Second phase (1996-1999)

The second phase of the project (1996-1999) was the Mediterranean Targeted Project phase II-Mass Transfer and Ecosystem Response (MTP II-MATER), a large-scale integrated project. It involved 53 partners (including the Joint Research Centre of the European Union) from 13 countries in Europe as well as Morocco and Tunisia. The project was coordinated by A. Monaco (University of Perpignan). Its budget amounted to ECU 10 589 million from the MAST Programme and ECU 221 000 from the International Cooperation Programme. Also worth mentioning is the operational structure of the project with a steering committee and a matrix-like organisation (research themes vs. geographic regions).

It is now accepted that MTP has contributed enormously to the creation of a well-identifiable community of scientists involved in Mediterranean research and can be used as a model for coordination of oceanographic research.


The names and addresses of scientists participating in the project and directly or indirectly contributing to the results described in this press release can be obtained from the European Commission (Scientific Officer).

We would like to thank the following scientists who contributed directly to this press release: J. P. Bethoux (LPCM, France), M. Canals (Univ. Barcelona, Spain), C. Guieu (CNRS, France), S. Heussner (Univ. Perpignan, France), V. Lykousis (NCMR, Greece), C. Migon (Univ. Paris VI, France), A. Monaco (Univ. Perpignan, France), R. Mosetti (OGS, Italy), K. Nittis (Univ. Athens, Greece), J. A. Sanchez-Cabeza (Univ. Barcelona, Spain).

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