As I am writing this I am sitting in the ferry terminal in Bastia, on the other side of Corsica from Calvi, where I spent a fantastic week of ‘Summer school’ (yes, even when you pass the 25-years-old mark you still go to school…).
Firstly, what a fantastic place to learn. Placed in this idyllic settings we slept, ate and studied here, both in the classroom and in the laboratory. Did I mention the beautiful views we encountered in the walk to our sampling beach? And the fact that study breaks were swim breaks? And my morning trail runs… but that makes for another story...
Back to the point: What was the school about? We spent one week at STARESO learning about benthic ecosystems (= the seafloor), which are intrinsically very connected to the pelagic system (= the water column). For example primary production by plankton in the water column is both dependent upon the nutrients released by the seafloor and will also bring some of these nutrients back to the seafloor realm once it dies off.
So, as we can already see, ecosystem functioning is all in the fine balance. We need to further study these system to understand the balance, where are its tipping points? For example – some animals play a greater role compared to others in this exchange of nutrients, but we still know very little. And some of these same animals are disappearing quicker than others due to disturbances ( = human pressures!). And here the summer school comes in. The school was part of FaCE-it, a big project looking at the introduction of wind turbines over the scale of the whole of the North Sea.
Day 1 lesson 1: Scale is very important!
So how do you measure these impacts? Classic/older approaches tended to focus on changes in species richness, diversity… However it is hard to place impact potentials to these metrics – species are changing worldwide.. so what?
Lesson 2: Focusing on functioning is more important.
But what is functioning? How do you measure it? As I mentioned at the beginning, nutrient exchanges between water and seafloor are extremely important. Nitrogen, Carbon.. the balance between these essential nutrients is what keeps waters clean, fish healthy, seafloors stable etc.. Goes without saying that maintaining the right balance will maintain essential services such as the provision of food and the maintenance of tourism.
And here is where the summer school really did came in: we learnt many techniques to measure fluxes of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, metals and other nutrients from the water into the sediments. Learnt to see how species can contribute to these fluxes, from collection methods to laboratory to statistical analysis of such complicated data. We learnt how to use less-invasive methods such as cameras that can penetrate the sediment allowing us to gather quantitative data on the health of such sediments. Hey, we even learnt how to model fluxes of nutrients (O, C, N) in seagrass beds using complicated mathematics that were taught in an easy-to-understand way (perhaps the swim breaks to oxygenate the brain helped!).
I am now ready to take it all on board and use these new techniques in my future scientific explorations. So watch this space. And in the meantime, remember, everything is connected. So respect the ocean and the surrounding land (all of it, it will connect somehow). The planet is providing for us, but it all hangs in a delicate balance. Until we understand more, let’s try to do our best to keep it in balance and keep it as clean as possible, as nature made it…
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