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Exploring the Mediterranean

The temperature of deep water in the Western Mediterranean basin has risen by 0.13°C during the last forty years.
The Mediterranean Targeted Project (MTP) set out to investigate processes typical of the world's larger oceans in the semi-enclosed Mediterranean Sea. The first phase, MTP-I, produced a wealth of scientifically valuable information, and established a large and closely knit scientific community. This unprecedented level of scientific co-operation provided a launch pad for the second phase, MTP-II - Mass Transfer and Ecosystem Response (MATER), the largest project of its kind. Due to run until the end of 1999, MATER is already delivering useful data and is rapidly becoming a model for future pan-European research.


MTP-I, which began in 1993 and was completed in 1996, consisted of a cluster of 10 projects. Each was independent with a different scientific coordinator but the studies shared common objectives and deliverables. Their combined mission was to extend our understanding of the complex processes that give the Mediterranean Sea its unique character. Unusually, the European Commission itself took the responsibility for overall coordination of the project cluster.

"The first three years of MTP constituted a pilot project to build up a multi-disciplinary scientific community capable of concentrating exclusively and effectively on the Mediterranean Sea. This was a significant achievement in human terms: MTP-I involved 250 scientists from 14 different countries, accustomed to working on specific areas of the basin. These studies and scientists are now linked and have developed into a high-profile project for Europe," commented Elisabeth Lipiatou, Scientific Officer for the project at the European Commission.

The first phase also produced a mass of important results.

  • The temperature of deep waters in the Western Mediterranean has increased at a rate of 3.2x10-3 °C per year over the last 40 years. This is a rapid rate of increase, faster than any apparent in the paleo-archives of Western Mediterranean sediments.
  • There has been a significant change in salinity over the same period. This could have far-reaching implications for circulation patterns both within the Mediterranean and between the sea and the Atlantic through the Gibraltar Straits.
  • Nutrient discharges (phosphate and nitrate) have increased as a result of increasing population and industrial and agricultural activities around the sea. This has accelerated coastal eutrophication and has led to algal blooms and other phenomena that have adversely affected local tourism.
  • Concentrations of lead in the surface waters halved during the early 1980s as a result of new European legislation to curb the use of lead additives in petrol.

"MTP-I produced data on how the whole Mediterranean ecosystem functions and changes with the seasons, and how the sea responds to fluctuations in the levels of different pollutants, and it developed advanced models of water circulation patterns," explains Elisabeth Lipiatou. "Conferences and meetings were a key part of the project."

Caulerpa taxifolia, the "killing seaweed", has disrupted the natural balance of the marine ecosystem of the Mediterranean and has led to serious problems for tourism along some coasts. Its massive development is the result of an increase in eutrophication caused by industrial growth and intensive farming methods.

The international standing of the project is illustrated by the fact that project results presented at the 1997 International Conference on "Progress in Oceanography of the Mediterranean Sea" held in Rome became the subject of articles in Science, La Recherche, Focus, Science et Avenir, Earth, and others, and are shortly to be published as a special issue of the international journal, Progress in Oceanography.

The second phase, MATER, is coordinated by André Monaco at the University of Perpignan in France. "MATER is large," says André Monaco. "It involves over 300 scientists from 13 different countries based in 54 separate laboratories and has a budget of E11 million. By the end of 1999, besides many laboratory experiments and model development, we will have spent over 1000 days at sea collecting and analysing data on the physical, chemical and biological processes that help shape the ecosystems of the sea."

At its half-way stage, MATER was already on course to live up to the example set by its pilot project. In April and May 1998, 42 participants from 13 laboratories in 5 countries (Spain, France, Italy, UK and Morocco) successfully completed a crucial High Frequency Flux Experiment (HFFE) in the Alboran Sea. The area of study was a small 'box' of the sea near the town of Málaga at the point where inflowing Atlantic waters meet the quieter waters of the Mediterranean. This makes it a special area particularly well suited to studying the relationship between water properties, biological processes and biogeochemical fluxes. Three fixed stations were set up to take a range of measurements (bacterial content, level of organic matter, oxygen content, suspended matter, primary production, phytoplankton levels and radio-tracer levels) every three or four days. The study area was also monitored daily by satellite remote sensing to detect local water circulation patterns and temperature and salinity variations. "The experiment was completed on June 1st 1998, after successful recovery of all the mooring arrays," explains Miguel Canals of the University of Barcelona, who was responsible for the HFFE in the Alboran Sea. "The team of scientists involved achieved a 100% sampling efficiency and preliminary results show that the experiment happened to coincide with a major spring bloom." Final analysis of the data is expected by the end of 1999.



Project Title:  
Mediterranean Targeted Project I (MTP-I) 1993-1996

Mediterranean Targeted Project II-Mass Transfer and Ecosystem Response (MTP 2 - MATER) 1996-1999

Marine Science and Technology (MAST 3)

Contract Reference: MAS3960051

CORDIS databaseFor more information on this project,
go to the Cordis database Record