11/03/2011 03:09

Head of European environmental unit: We hope partnerships with Israel will increase.
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Environmental leaders and researchers from all over Europe and Israel came together at the University of Haifa on Wednesday to discuss the challenges and costs of climate change, as well as the European Union and the Jewish state’s cooperative efforts to tackle these challenges.

The conference, jointly organized by the European Union, Environmental Protection Ministry, University of Haifa and Natural Resource and Environmental Research Center (NRERC), provided a venue for Israeli researchers participating in EU-funded projects to share their material and successes – most of which at this gathering were occurring under the auspices of the EU’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7).

In the course of the FP7, which will soon come to an end, Europe has invested a total of 50 billion euros in projects that have explored environment, energy, transport, space and global monitoring for environment and security, according to Dr. Andrea Tilche, head of the Climate Change Unit at European Commission Directorate General for Research and Development.

Israeli teams are currently participating in an alphabet soup worth of EU environmental acronyms under the FP7, but Tilche said he hoped that cooperation would increase much further beyond what it is today.

“We hope that in the future Israeli partners will be more present,” he said.

Prof. Zvy Dubinsky of Bar-Ilan University introduced his FP7 project called CORAL WARM, in which he is studying the effects of temperature warming and concurrent increased acidity of ocean waters on coral growth, in partnership with colleagues at the University of Bologna, in Italy.

As the warmer waters absorb higher amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide, “the oceans are becoming more acidic,” he explained. Just like human bones “begin to dissolve” in increased acid levels, “the same is true for corals,” according to Dubinsky.

For around 25 million years, the world’s oceans more or less maintained a stable pH, but after the industrial revolution, it continued to drop and drop to unprecedented low levels, and therefore high acidities, causing “severe” problems and “irreversible decline” to coral reefs, he said.

“The skeletons of shellfish of snails, of clams, of sea urchins, and of coral – all of them – become more frail,” he said, noting that coral reef growth has dropped 10 percent since 1880, and will probably be at 30% of 1880 levels by the year 2100.

“We are studying [the reefs] by different instruments – taking corals and putting them in different acidities and see how it changes their growth rates,” he explained.

“The expected outcome of this project is to be able to predict projects and to be able to identify populations that are tolerant and resistant, and use them to remediate damages caused by these processes,” Dubinsky said.

Meanwhile, a professor working on another FP7 project called DARECLIMED, which aims to analyze data on climate changes in the eastern Mediterranean, said his team faces challenges even acquiring the information necessary for their project. Once collected, however, the data can help countries in the region form strategies to adapt to new trends.

“Getting data is a basic requirement and a basic problem,” said Dr. Amnon Stupp, of Tel Aviv University. “Getting data from Arab countries is much harder – for example, in Syria, the meteorological services is part of the army.”

Stupp is working with other researchers located in Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus to figure out just how to collect the data necessary to monitor meteorological changes throughout the region.

“Water issues in this region are regarded as a state secret,” he said.

In another regionally-oriented project, Dr. Dror Angel of the University of Haifa is working on an FP7 project called INTERMED, in which he is partnered with professors from the University of Palermo in Italy and the University of Dubrovnik in Croatia to look at the impact of climate change on “intertidal” communities found in the Mediterranean.

Intertidal zones are located between tidemarks and contain very diverse amounts of bio-diversity, many of which change drastically according to climate change, but have rarely been studied thus far in the Mediterranean region, Angel said.

“We see a number of changes that seem to be related to excess heat,” he explained, noting that some such changes include behavioral adaptations, physiological adjustments and massive die-offs.

For the betterment of the entire Mediterranean, toward the end of the conference, the researchers looked together toward an EU plan called Horizon 2020, which aims to harness the efforts of the region to de-pollute the shared sea, Prof. Michael Scoullos, team leader of Horizon 2020’s capacity building team, explained.

Scoullus stressed the need for major investments to curb pollution caused by municipal waste, urban waste-water and industrial emissions, which account for 80% of all Mediterranean pollution, he said.

Israel is already on board and is working on a proposal for a reclamation of the Netanya Landfill site as part of its Horizon 2020 plan, according to Scoullus.

“Much of what was said today has to find its way to Horizon 2020,” he said.

Tilche agreed, stating: “Only through research and innovation can we build a Europe [and world] that will grow in the future and grow sustainably.”