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The University of Haifas Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences is at the forefront of research focusing on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a field that has profound impacts on many aspects of life in the region

Dan Zeller
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An extraordinary Summit Meeting took place a few weeks ago at the University of Haifa.  Around the negotiating table Israelis sat next to leading Palestinian researchers, and Turks side by side Greeks, who were next to Cypriots. No, they were not there to talk politics. They came to take part in the first conference of its kind on Mediterranean Sea Research, hosted by the University of Haifa. 

University of Haifa scientists survey the MediterraneanCredit: The University of Haifa

Just as science knows no borders, so the sea cannot recognize borders. In order to advance our understanding of the Mediterranean Sea, we need to cooperate. Fish and wildlife do not recognize man-made boundaries, and, certainly, geological and geo-physical processes do not stop at border checkpoints. But the knowledge we can acquire thanks to this cooperation will benefit us all, said Amos Shapira, President of the University of Haifa.

Leader in sea research

The conference was organized by the University of Haifa, supported by a gift from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation. In recent years, the University has invested considerable resources in becoming a leading force at an international level in Mediterranean Sea research. At the heart of this work stands the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences, which in almost a decade of operation has become a leading international force in sea research. At the head of the School is Prof. Zvi Ben-Avraham, an Israel Prize Laureate who has previously worked at prestigious universities such as MIT and Stanford.

The Schools academic faculty come from the best universities and research institutes in the world, including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Cal Tech and others. Despite the Schools relative youth, the University of Haifas research makes up for this in seniority.

The School comprises three new departments: Marine Geosciences, Marine Biology and Marine Technologies. These departments are joined by the department of Maritime Civilizations and the Leon Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, which have been operating since 1972 – the same year the University was founded.  

Thanks to the excellence of the Schools researchers, three years ago the University of Haifa won a tender issued by the State of Israel to lead the Mediterranean Sea Research Center of Israel (MERCI). This Center is a consortium consisting of all the universities in Israel, along with two principal bodies: the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute (IOLR) and the Geological Survey of Israel. MERCI is headed by Prof. Ben-Avraham. The Centers goal is to consolidate the latest knowledge in various areas – from the economic potential of energy resulting from Israels offshore discoveries, through ecological and environmental concerns, to the effects on people and the security challenges posed by the Mediterranean Sea.

The research vessel “Nautilus”

Potential tsunami of knowledge

In fact, the study of the sea is an under-researched area throughout the world. Today we know more about the moon than about what is happening at the depths of our oceans. Yet, the comparison between sea and space research is a useful one. The State of Israel faces a lack of knowledge about one of its most strategic assets. The discovery of huge gas reserves only shines a spotlight on this existing shortage of knowledge.

Thanks to the University of Haifa, researchers are studying the eastern Mediterranean and trying to understand where there are threats of landslides and earthquakes, whether and how human actions impact on life, how to deal with invasive species, and more. For example, until recently there was a debate between researchers on the possibilities of a tsunami in the Mediterranean. A study led by the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa found that tsunamis have plagued Mediterranean coasts once every 250 years on average. The strategic implications for government bodies in Israel are clear. 

In another study, in collaboration with Prof. Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the sunken Titanic, and his research vessel Nautilus, researchers from the School found areas suspected to have had landslides. Landslides at sea are enormous events which can cause tsunamis, among other things. The discovery of such areas is critical when the entire region is in the midst of massive development due to the discovery of gas, and the pipes carrying gas, and possibly oil, could be placed along the length and breadth of the Sea. In general, in many studies researchers at the School found evidence of many gas vents. Or, as Prof. Ben-Avraham put it, the Mediterranean is a gas bath. Several reservoirs have been found, many others are waiting to be discovered.

In another project, in collaboration with several other Israeli agencies, University researchers are performing systematic marine surveys, from which we will know what sort of biodiversity exists off the coast of Israel. The importance of these surveys is very significant: without the basis of systematic and reliable data, it is impossible to know whether there is a change in this diversity, and whether human activities such as fishing, drilling or development of ports is impacting on this biodiversity or not.

As mentioned, all these questions concern not only Israel but all of the eastern Mediterranean states. Moreover, in order to maintain its leading position in the field, the University is continuing to invest in top-class researchers and cutting edge technologies.  Last year, at a cost of three million dollars, the University purchased an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), an unmanned submarine that can submerge to depths of three kilometers and is capable of providing sonar and video images of what is happening underwater and also to a depth of approximately 100 meters below the seabed.

Since then, the University has even acquired the complementary tool, a Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle that can go to similar depths to collect delicate samples, to such an extent that it can pluck individual algae growing on the seabed. The huge pressure at these depths, the distance and the isolation from its human operators requires unique technology, which exists today in the tools sent into space. So, the comparison with space persists. The challenges of deep sea exploration require the continuous development of new technologies. For this purpose, the School of Marine Sciences has established the new Hatter Department of Marine Technologies, where the majority of staff are engineers by academic training. Their role is to develop the eyes and ears of sea researchers at depths where no human diver can survive.

The sea is the future

In addition to developing deep sea research underwater, designated laboratories are being built in the Schools new research center, the Helmsley Charitable Trust Mediterranean Sea Research Center, which was established thanks to a donation by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.  As part of the new Center, a shallow water research station has also been built.

The skys the limit, or rather, the ocean floor is the limit, said University President Amos Shapira. We want to establish a deep sea observatory, more robots and submarines. We want to provide our researchers with the best technology – modern instruments for analyzing soil samples and innovative microscopes. We believe it is crucial to increase the number of scholarships we can give to research students from around the world – because they are the foundation on which we can grow and develop. I have no doubt that the sea is the future of mankind. Land resources are dwindling. We can already see today the impact of food shortages in Africa on the influx of refugees. The sea can be the source of our food and energy resources and in many places it has been a source of drinking water.

Certainly, the sea can and should be part of the solution to population explosion, through the construction of artificial islands, Pres. Shapira continues. The sea remains the best source of new drugs, and in recent years we have heard of a number of discoveries relating to cancer drugs extracted from coral and marine life. The sea is still the busiest transport route of goods between people and is certainly one of the favorite leisure places for billions. To use the depth of its riches, it falls upon us to explore it in the greatest depth – literally. I am proud that we at the University of Haifa are participating in this mission that is so important for the future of humanity.   

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