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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 48 - February 2006   
 A scientific conclave and public meeting
 Concerted voices on strings
 Two months flat on their backs
 The wild card of distributed production
 Action stations for in vitro
 Wolfgang Heckl’s straight talking
 The added value of mobility
 Analysis of a stalled constitution

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Title  Mysteries of the ocean

Water – about 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of it – covers three-quarters of the Earth’s surface. In the present process of what is now regarded as ineluctable climate warming, the way this huge liquid mass reacts will play an essential role in many respects.

Mysteries of the ocean
First of all, ocean waters store heat better than land and consequently are formidable reservoirs of the energy provided by the sun’s rays. This mobile environment, which has no borders, also serves to distribute this heat across the globe, through both deep-sea and surface currents. Over the years, the science of dynamic oceanography has endeavoured to plot the routes of this highly complex circulation. Today we know that, from North to South and from East to West, a global network of interconnections is at work, based on a cyclical process that the American Wallace Broecker made famous some 20 years ago when he described it as the “great ocean conveyor belt”, a complete cycle of which is estimated to take between 1 000 and 2 000 years.

In addition to this distributing role, the importance of the oceans for climate lies in the vital role they play in the carbon cycle. Marine waters ‘neutralise’ a large part of the atmospheric CO2. Also, the seabed bio-produces and stores vast quantities of methane, the second greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Yet this ability to function as a carbon reservoir can slow or even go into reverse. As part of a vicious circle attributable to the warming process itself, the opposite process can be triggered, with the release of the stored gases leading to the worst-case scenario by boosting the greenhouse effect.

It is therefore easy to understand why improved knowledge of the oceans is a priority as international research mobilises to find out all it can about the mechanism of climate warming. At the same time, this vast and fluctuating environment, much of it immersed in darkness and hostile in many respects, presents enormous difficulties when it comes to measuring and interpreting reliable data and finally producing models. A passionate and vital exercise, unravelling the mysteries of the ocean is a matter of penetrating one of the most subtle and singular components of the Earth’s ‘ecological clock’.

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