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The Race to End Climate Change Begins in Haifa

The fight against climate change is a race against time – and University of Haifa is trying to win the race before it is too late

Jacob Kamaras
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A jellyfish researcher from the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences
A jellyfish researcher from the Leon H. Charney School of Marine SciencesCredit: Hagai Nativ, Morris Kahn Research Station
Jacob Kamaras
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“When people think about climate change and its effects, it’s important to understand that we live in the small part of the planet – 30% is land, 70% is ocean and sea. And of that 30% we live on, take away all the deserts that are unlivable, take away the arctic areas that are nearly unlivable, and we might get down to 10% that’s habitable,” says Dr. Beverly Goodman-Tchernov, head of University of Haifa’s Marine Geosciences Department. “We’re living on the edge, on the minor part of this planet, and we’re even losing more of it to the ocean because of warming – both because of the sea level rising as well as processes of coastal erosion and runoff.”

But what is Israel’s academic community actually doing to solve the climate crisis? Leveraging the vast research potential of the Mediterranean Sea, University of Haifa’s Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences has become both a national and global leader in this battle.

In its quest to combat climate change, University of Haifa’s laboratory is the Mediterranean, an optimal research setting due to its semi-closed basin and its status as “one of the most responsive seas to climate change,” says the Charney School’s Director Prof. Ilana Berman-Frank. “It has very specific and unique characteristics that on the one hand make it an easy place to study changes. Climate change is impacting the Mediterranean Sea with surface seawater temperatures increasing at rates more rapid than those observed in the oceans. This affects physical, chemical, and biological processes,” Berman-Frank says, noting that while the deep-sea temperature in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans is approximately 4 degrees Celsius, it is 14 degrees Celsius in the Mediterranean. 

The Mediterranean “can serve as a model” for research into climate change worldwide, says Berman-Frank, as “we can see what’s happening in such a system and use it to forecast what might happen in other systems.” 

A planet on ‘borrowed time’ 

Goodman-Tchernov describes her ambitious, multifaceted work in strikingly simple terms. 

“I measure sand,” says Goodman-Tchernov, who studies how archaeology, geology, and anthropology of marine systems can help us understand the way nature and humans affect coastlines in the past and present, and what thatrelationshipwill bring in the future. Measuring sand “may sound pretty mundane,” she admits, but it represents a crucial step in University of Haifa’s effort to save the planet.

“It’s about recognizing how our contribution to the sand – to the makeup of the planet – is changing what our sand is made out of,” she says. “We are changing the bottom of the sea. All of these actions are tied in together. Specifically, with regard to climate, I tie all these things together.” It all comes back to the race against time – a race that Goodman-Tchernov asserts we cannot afford to lose. 
“We’re no longer just using resources that are in our geological time period, resources from our immediate landscape,” she says. “Instead, by stripping out carbon from the past – going far and deep into the planet and oceans to retrieve deep coals, oil and all of these fossil fuels and resources – we are reintroducing that old carbon into our living atmosphere where it does not belong. If in any period of time, you’re using only what’s on the surface and exposed, most things would perhaps be okay. But we’re borrowing. We’re literally on borrowed time.” 
“You may say, ‘Well, plastics aren’t climate,’ but plastics are industry,” she continues. “Plastics are oil. Plastics are fossils. All these things do relate. Our production of plastics goes right back into our borrowed time machine. We’re borrowing from other geological time periods.” 

Dr. Beverly Goodman examines the soil layers exposed recently by the retreat of the Dead SeaCredit: Hagai Nativ, Morris Kahn Research Station

An Israeli program’s global expansion 

Beginning in January, the Charney School will expand its game-changing climate change research in the Mediterranean through a new five-year program with the Germany-based GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. In a partnership funded by the Helmholtz Foundation, the two institutions are forming the new Eastern Mediterranean Sea Centre. Led by Prof Eric Achterberg (GEOMAR) and Prof. Ilana Berman-Frank, a core team of around 30 researchers and students will study the Mediterranean Sea as an early-warning model system that focuses on what the state of climate change in the Mediterranean Sea tells us about future conditions in oceans worldwide. Multidisciplinary marine research will examine seafloor processes and sedimentary records to inform about the past, water column processes to tell us what is currently occurring, and modeling work to examine what the future will look like for the Mediterranean Sea and the global oceans. 

The partnership with GEOMAR reflects a decade-long trend at University of Haifa and its Charney School: harnessing modern and innovative technological capabilities in striving towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which emphasize tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans. 
Along those lines, a recent expedition off Israel’s coast that was part of a long-term collaboration among the Charney School, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and the Inter-University Institute of Marine Research uncovered what researchers described as a biologically diverse paradise, including a rich food web based on methane, hundreds of deep-water sharks, and the largest concentration of shark eggs ever found. Investigating this habitat’s functionality “will allow us to assess the potential effects of global warming on ecological functionality,” said the Charney School’s Dr. Yizhaq Makovsky, one of the initiative’s leading researchers. 
If that’s not enough, University of Haifa is also at the forefront of a global collaboration aiming to speak with whales. Earlier this year, the Charney School joined forces with City University of New York, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Imperial College London and University of California, Berkeley in announcing CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) Project, a TED Audacious Project and interspecies communication initiative that is applying advanced machine learning and gentle robotics to listen to and translate the communication of whales. Much like University of Haifa’s climate change research, CETI is demonstrating that interdisciplinary and global collaboration, supported by cutting-edge technologies, can be used to benefit not only humankind but also other species on this planet. 

Plastic garbage on the shores of the Dead Sea originating in the Jerusalem areaCredit: Hagai Nativ, Morris Kahn Research Station

Understanding the ‘true cost’ of the Dead Sea 

Within the Mediterranean system, the Dead Sea presents a powerful case study on the human contribution to climate change. The Dead Sea’s water level has been declining by one meter every year in evaporation caused not only by rising temperatures, but also the operations of companies that extract the water and its minerals for production of beauty products and other commercial goods. 
“It is adding to this massive sea-level change and to sink holes,” Goodman-Tchernov says. “When I once raised questions about that, someone told me, ‘Well, the companies have a 99-year contract.’ That just makes you stop and go, ‘Wait, hold on! This is one of the wonders of the planet, a national treasure, a global natural gem.’ We don’t think in terms of true cost and true value.” 
Getting the population to better understand the concept of “true cost” is a broader impetus for University of Haifa’s climate change research. “If we can’t see the problem, if we can’t discuss it, if we can’t quantify it, it’s very difficult to try and solve it,” Goodman-Tchernov says. 

Effecting change 

On a policy level, Goodman-Tchernov’s tsunami research – which entails reconstructing past tsunamis and the damage they caused, then making projections for future tsunamis and their level of hazard, while taking into account the impact of climate change – has been incorporated into the Israeli government’s tsunami program. The program includes evacuation drills, educational materials for schools, and public signage. According to Goodman-Tchernov, the damage and human cost that will happen today if there is a tsunami would be far greater than if a tsunami of equal magnitude had happened 60 years ago. This is due to a rising sea-level, increasing coastal populations, and development. 

Asked for her recommendations of specific climate change-driven policy changes, Goodman-Tchernov says a larger buffer zone in coastal areas would help alleviate coastal erosion. For instance, although there are already laws in Israel regarding private construction’s distance from the coastline, she says that building expansion projects which have the option of going along the coast or inland should go inland. 

Israel also has an alarming concentration of high-risk populations – such as children in kindergartens and hospital patients – in high-risk coastal zones. “Let’s shift that around,” Goodman-Tchernov says. “We can’t do a whole lot about the things that are already there, but we can make changes to how we do this in the future.” 

Those who are passionate about making this change can also do their part by supporting the Charney School’s work with a philanthropic gift, says Lisa J. Silverman, Interim CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.
“The Charney School’s research into climate change solutions, which is unparalleled in Israel and also unique on a global scale, provides a platform for simultaneously supporting an Israeli cause and making a difference in efforts to resolve a pressing international crisis,” Silverman says. “In other words, this is a win-win proposition for Israel and the planet.”

Furthermore, the time for anyone to do their part is now, Goodman- Tchernov stresses. “We’re in a timeframe right now that if changes can be made within the next decade, we are still at a point where we could reverse and change course, with the knowledge and technology that we have. The time for us all to act is now, before it’s too late.”

For more information about the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences at University of Haifa and to support the program, please visit the website