On land and sea, new Greece climate change infrastructure to supply data vital to climate study and predicting natural disasters

The southeastern Mediterranean is a region with its own distinctive climate, a natural laboratory that can help scientists observe and predict climate change globally. And yet it has been insufficiently studied so far.

To close this gap, two leading research centres of the Greek state are constructing infrastructure and equipment to measure the air and explore the waters and seabed of the southeastern Mediterranean—from the highest layer of the atmosphere to more than 5 000 metres under the sea surface in the deepest part of the Mediterranean, which happens to be located in Greece.

The National Observatory of Athens is setting up the Panhellenic Geophysical Observatory of Antikythera (PANGEA) to carry out this atmospheric and climate data collection and as a research station. It is to be located on Antikythera, a small, almost uninhabited island between Crete and the Peloponnese.

“The PANGEA project is a big leap forward in measuring atmospheric parameters and building climate models for the southeastern Mediterranean,” says Prof. Manolis Plionis, president of the National Observatory of Athens. “The Mediterranean region is a climate change hotspot and the data will help us understand how climate change will evolve in the coming years and its consequences on society and economy”.

The Hellenic Centre for Marine Research will construct a new oceanographic research vessel to replace a previous one that must be decommissioned after having served for 35 years. The new vessel will be able to explore both continental shallow waters and the deep sea.

Its construction is innovative. At 70 metres in length and 16 metres wide, it will carry sizeable multi-purpose laboratories and offer spacious open decks to allow for containers with mobile laboratories be interchanged. This will make the vessel a versatile platform, offering the flexibility to conduct a wider range of scientific and other missions.

“The Mediterranean is of critical importance for climate change as it operates as a miniature ocean responding rapidly to climate variability. Its dark, unexplored waters have many secrets to reveal still,” says Dr. Aris Karageorgis, president of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research. “A new, solid vessel with state of the art technology can help us further explore the Mediterranean waters and seabed and predict what can happen in the open oceans under the prism of climate change”.

>@Hellenic Centre for Marine Research
©Hellenic Centre for Marine Research

Greek climate change infrastructure for a global challenge

The PANGEA station will provide continuous monitoring of essential climate variables and geophysical activity and will stream real-time certified monitoring data to the scientific community and the society. It aims to address a number of societal objectives related to challenges such as climate change and its impact on severe weather and natural disasters in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as monitoring seismic activity, especially of the southeast Mediterranean, which is poorly monitored to date, but essential due to the intense tectonic activity.

For its part, the vessel is a new piece of infrastructure in an ageing worldwide oceanographic fleet and can “heal oceanography,” says Karageorgis.

It will participate in several scientific or civil missions:

  • data collection on sea temperature and salinity
  • sampling sea floor sediments
  • monitoring sea pollution on the surface, water column and the seabed
  • monitoring the health of coastal and open sea habitats and their ecosystems
  • collection of samples of aquatic life
  • surveying for the installation of wind parks in the open sea or of submarine fibre optic or electricity cables
  • participation in search and rescue missions
  • collection of samples in cases of oil spills
  • deployment and recovery of oceanographic buoys and sediment traps
  • floating university and teaching for post-graduate students

Both of these projects are expected to have multiple impacts.

On a scientific level, they will allow constant collection of essential climate variables in the atmosphere and in the sea to feed into climate models. Reliable climate models can lead to better observations and more accurate forecasts on climate change.  

The data will help scientists understand how climate evolves and to distinguish between natural and human-induced climate change.

In the area of marine research, it will strengthen the preservation of biodiversity by observing how living organisms change, for example by studying alien species that come from tropical waters due to the rise in the temperature of the seawater.

These perspectives open a window to the future, where it will not only be possible to monitor how climate behaves, but more importantly take actions to anticipate and fight climate change.  

Both the National Observatory of Athens and the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research are members of international scientific networks and both apply an open data policy. Apart from the data, the facilities too will be accessible to foreign scientific missions, to conduct experiments or other projects as part of European or international scientific programmes.

For Greek society as well, there will be a positive impact on many levels.

The data from the PANGEA station will assist Greek civil protection authorities in forecasting and possibly avoiding the severe effects of natural disasters.  

In addition, this infrastructure will offer Greece the opportunity to raise its profile in terms of scientific research.  

“In research circles Greece is often not competitive enough. These projects show that there are excellent and forward looking researchers. All they need is support and infrastructure to enable them to use their knowledge and skills and compete with others,” says Martin Humburg, an economist at the European Investment Bank.

On a knowledge dissemination level, these projects will also be beneficial since they will favour scientific educational tourism from school groups and students, on a National and International level.

“The PANGEA project will have important societal benefits, related to reversing the population decline of Antikythera and improving coastal shipping in this border area”, Prof. Manolis Plionis says.

Joining forces against climate change

The National Observatory of Athens coordinates, while the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research is a member of the National Network on Climate Change, a flagship initiative of the Greek state. Fighting climate change is a priority for them.

That’s why the European Investment Bank, the EU climate bank, signed a loan of up to €57.5 million to the Greek state in July 2020, to finance in part the construction and equipment of the Geophysical Observatory in Antikythera and the new oceanographic vessel. These projects have an implementation horizon of five to six years.

Financing for scientific projects is scarce, especially in the period of austerity in Greece since the financial crisis, explains Costas Kargakos, the loan officer at the European Investment Bank who worked on the deal.

“The operation supports the efforts of the Greek government to promote investments in strategic research infrastructure and aims at contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation, a top priority of the bank and of the EU,” Kargakos says.

Apart from its scientific value, the project will also help tackle the brain drain that has deprived Greece of highly trained scientists.

“We have not financed something like this in Europe. This is cutting edge infrastructure on these areas and it is fulfilling to see that the investment can also have an impact socially, by keeping researchers in Greece,” says Anthony Friedman, an engineer at the European Investment Bank.  

Strategic infrastructure is a precious ally in fighting climate change

The island of Antikythera has so far been most notable as the place where the first computer from antiquity was discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century, known as the “Antikythera mechanism”.

It has been selected as the location of the atmospheric data station because it satisfies a number of scientific criteria:

  • its remote location and very few permanent residents mean that human intervention and air pollution are minimal
  • it is an area through which transit air masses, air pollutants and volcanic ash, as for example from Mount Etna
  • its atmospheric conditions enable reliable and representative measurement of atmospheric parameters and  natural background levels of greenhouse gases.

The observatory will be ecologically built, to protect the environment, but also so as not to hamper the sensitivity of its state of the art equipment.

The oceanographic research vessel, with low fuel consumption, will be equally well equipped to carry out missions in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, in the Red Sea and potentially even in the Atlantic Ocean.

It carries a remotely operated vehicle that can observe, measure, and sample the deep sea, state of the art multibeam echosounders that can provide valuable information on sea floor morphology, and numerous high-tech scientific instruments in support of cutting-edge shallow and deep-sea research.

“As a Greek oceanographer, I know how important it is to have a seaworthy vessel and I am moved to see this astonishing project come to life,” says Dr. Aris Karageorgis. “It will bring together the Greek hospitality with the scientific curiosity and will contribute to high-level research and innovation, while forging friendships regardless of country and nationality.