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Powerful marine research is needed

FEATURE After ten years of intensive work, the level of knowledge about the sea and climate has significantly increased, but many questions remain unanswered. Powerful and continuous research is needed on these issues, says Agneta Andersson, scientific coordinator for the EcoChange research program.

Text: Kristina Viklund

Why do we need EcoChange in the future? The question is put to Professor Agneta Andersson, scientific coordinator of this research program.

“For the sake of the sea, and for our sake. The marine environment is exposed to so many environmental threats, ongoing and changing. Climate change poses a real threat to the balance of the ecosystem, and disruptions have effects throughout the food web, all the way up to humans. That is why powerful and continuous research is needed.”

A solid foundation

Agneta has been the scientific coordinator for the EcoChange research program ever since its inception ten years ago. She looks back on a period of developing marine research on the Baltic Sea.

“The EcoChange research program has given us the opportunity to develop our research ideas on issues related to the effects of climate change on the marine ecosystem. The appropriations for EcoChange have given us a solid foundation to stand on when we seek funding from elsewhere. This has enriched the research environment, and has also made us develop contact networks both nationally and internationally.”

Rings on the water

Agneta particularly wants to emphasize the training of researchers within EcoChange. More than thirty people so far have completed PhDs in the program. These individuals have gone on to research or work within environmental management, and thus have brought the acquired knowledge to the community.

 “It is a great pleasure for those of us in the EcoChange leadership to see how these people gain important positions in society. These are the rings on the water!” says Agneta, who herself has been a supervisor for a large number of doctoral students.

Strategic research areas

It all began just over ten years ago, when the government announced large sums of money to set up strategic research areas. The marine environment was identified as an area of interest, and the leadership of Umeå University invited Agneta to participate in the work of writing an application. Together with then director of the Umeå Marine Sciences Center Professor Ulf Båmstedt, she began to define the focus on sea and climate change that would become the future EcoChange.

Strong cooperation

What, then, was the recipe for success for EcoChange? Despite huge competition, why was that first grant awarded? Agneta describes a very intensive application period that involved many people dedicating many hours. The result was a well-cohesive application with a clear target wording. An important factor was also the ideas of collaboration with other universities.

”At the planning stage, we already saw the benefits of finding partners that could complement our research both scientifically and geographically. Linnaeus University, with its strong marine operations at the Kalmar Laboratory, met with these criteria, and proved to be very positive participants.”

From biochemistry to fish

Since its inception, EcoChange has focused on investigating the effects of climate change on the Baltic Sea ecosystem. About sixty researchers are currently working in a variety of fields, from the smallest molecules up to fish. From the start, environmental toxins in the ecosystem were an important part of the research. Over time, interactions between the different levels of the food web have become increasingly in focus. Chemistry is linked to biology, bacteria and plankton with fish and this small sea is put in a global perspective.

”For example, we study qualitative changes in the ecosystem, how climate change can affect biological processes. The composition of fatty acids in zooplankton that is important for plankton-eating fish and thiamin deficiency that periodically occurs in the ecosystem are some of the areas we work with. Small changes that can have major consequences. We need to understand what's going on and find ways to deal with these problems.”

Adapting to new conditions

Increasing water temperatures, decreasing salinity and brownification of the water are effects of climate change that researchers knew even before the research program started. The changes are moving fast, and the question is whether the ecosystem will be able to adapt to the new conditions.

”The answer is both yes and no. There are parts of the ecosystem and ecosystem functions that will not be able to adapt, and where we already know that we are facing some serious consequences. At the same time, our research shows that there is an adaptability among certain organisms that may mitigate the consequences.”

Maximized societal benefits

By putting the results of the Baltic Sea research in a global perspective, more general conclusions can be drawn about the mechanisms that regulate the food web. This is vital for how the results can be used in practice.

”The challenge is to determine what opportunities exist for facing the major environmental problems in the Baltic Sea, and what are the best, most cost-effective measures to take. We develop important decision-making bases, improved monitoring methods and, as advisors, assist with issues related to classification of the marine environment. Our close association with marine management is crucial for our research activities to maximize the benefits for society.”

Long-term key to success

EcoChange has been active for ten years, and Agneta highlights this long term as an important factor.

”We have had the desire to be able to work more long-term than is usual in the research world. In this way, we have had the opportunity to further develop research areas, and to complete the various projects that have begun. It has definitely been one of the keys to success.”

This article is based on an interview with Agneta Andersson from March 2020.