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Attacking oil and chemical pollution in the Mediterranean (Argomarine)

The hundreds of energy- and chemical-related industrial sites located around the Mediterranean Sea represent a formidable challenge for environmental protection. The EU-funded Argomarine project has developed a system to make the task easier.

Tags: Water
Testing Argomarine in the Mediterranean. ©Argomarine
Testing Argomarine in the Mediterranean.

“Around 150 million people are concentrated on the 46 000 km of Mediterranean coastline, with 110 million of them living in cities, while some 200 million tourists arrive in the Mediterranean region every year,” explains Michele Cocco of Italy’s Tuscan Archipelago National Park. “Meanwhile, more than 200 petrochemical and energy installations, chemical companies and chlorine plants are located along the Mediterranean coast.”

“These figures represent a major challenge for the preservation of the Mediterranean environment, with over 80% of pollution originating from human activities, including the heavy marine traffic associated with industrial activities.”

Cocco coordinates the EU-funded ARGOMARINE project, aimed at developing a better system for monitoring marine traffic in environmentally sensitive marine areas. To do this, the project is using sophisticated electronic, geopositioning, and telematic tools, and a high-speed data transmission network.

“Data from different sources are collected and sent to a main acquisition and elaboration central unit,” Cocco explains. The sources include:

  • Satellite, airborne and vessel-mounted sensor platforms to capture images of the area of interest, regardless of cloud cover and weather conditions;
  • Underwater monitoring technologies for passive acoustic monitoring to detect unauthorised access to protected zones;
  • Autonomous vehicles for the detection and confirmation of accidents and oil spills;
  • Mathematical modelling to predict sea hydrodynamics and simulate the fate of oil slicks;
  • Integrated communication and high-performance data processing to produce near real-time information about ship traffic and marine pollution events.

“One of the main achievements of the ARGOMARINE project, thus far, has been the development of the Marine Information System,” Cocco says. “The ‘MIS’ has been conceived as a connected group of subsystems for performing data storage, decision support, data mining and analysis of data warehouses.”

Importantly, Cocco adds, it also comprises a web-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) portal for the accessing new data products and services. He says the Argomarine MIS fits well within the context of the EU-GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) initiative, also known as Copernicus. A particular issue for Copernicus has been interoperability.

“Despite the recent, great advances in standards and specifications, there is still a real need to test and demonstrate their deployment in large, integrated systems, to realise the vision of a pan-European spatial data infrastructure.”

The Argomarine MIS portal and data nodes provide services through standardised protocols, facilitating integration with other GMES services.

Real benefits for economy and environment

Short sea shipping is a central part of the logistics chain for transport in Europe, delivering nearly 40% of the total tonne-kilometres per year. With the current emphasis on balancing transport modes, sea transport remains desirable from an economic point of view, but it places a growing burden on marine and coastal environments.

“On average 60 maritime accidents occur per year in the Mediterranean Sea,” says Cocco, “15 of which involve oil or chemical spills. The increase in transport of oil and other dangerous chemicals in Northern European and Arctic Ocean areas further extends the demand for marine pollution services to support early warning and planning of mitigation actions.

“It is a natural fact that contamination doesn’t respect national boundaries, and one country’s pollution quickly can, and often does, become another country’s environmental and economic problem. Thus, an initiative that aims to tackle the problem of pollution within a global, cross border context is attacking this issue in a more realistic and feasible way.”

Indeed, the international character of the Argomarine project has been a key to its success. The consortium included academics, researchers and engineers from several European countries.

“The project required competent integration of resources through a multidisciplinary approach,” says Cocco. “A distinguishing feature of the project was the linking of various research groups and activities.”

And the support of the European Commission has also been crucial: “EU support has helped us bring together a critical mass of European researchers and users. Argomarine contributes to the realisation of the EU’s vision of developing integration and knowledge to reduce environmental impact, according to the recommendations of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).