French science yacht to map climate change

French science yacht to map climate change

4th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The schooner Tara is to set sail on a three-year scientific voyage on the trail of naturalist Charles Darwin to map the effects of climate change on the marine organisms from which all life evolved.

PARIS - The 150,000 kilometre (81,000 nautical mile) journey will take the French boat into all of the the world's oceans and from the ice caps to the tropics, following and also expanding on Darwin's 1831-1836 trip on board the Beagle.

That voyage inspired Darwin's theory of natural selection to explain the evolution of species, while the Tara's trip will study the clouds of tiny ocean flora and fauna that produce 50 percent of the world's oxygen.

"Without these microorganisms man would never have come into being. If they disappear, so do we," Eric Karsenti, the Tara's 60-year-old scientific leader, told AFP as the crew prepared for their departure this weekend.

"Marine microorganisms -- 90 percent of the oceans' biomass -- absorb the majority of atmospheric carbon dioxide and produce half our oxygen," explained Karsenti, head of cellular biology at the European Bio-Molecular Laboratory.

"Measuring the impact of the warming that they are undergoing and studying the carbon and oxygen cycle will allow us to incorporate as yet unknown data in future climate simulation models," he said.

The mission, dubbed Tara-Oceans, is the double-masted yacht's second related to climate change following an 18-month trip between 2006 and 2008 to chart the shrinking ice sheets in the Arctic between Siberia and Greenland.

This time, the boat will cruise warmer waters in the Mediterranean and the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as well as returning to the Arctic and Antarctic and making stops in around 50 countries.

Divided between the 36-metre yacht and various laboratories on land, around 100 scientists will be involved in analysing the samples and data gathered.

"This ambitious mission will plunge us into the invisible world of marine ecosystems, one of the least explored realms of oceanography," said Etienne Bourgois, head of the company Tara Expeditions.

"From viruses to jelly fish, larvae and fish and coral, to various microorganisms such as coccolithophorids and diatoms, we are going to study all the ecosystems at the base of the marine food chain," said Karsenti.

"This has never been done at the global level and in the continuity of all the seas of the world," he added.

The effects of climate change on marine organisms like plankton are not yet fully understood -- some species might bloom in warmer waters, others might die out -- and many are also threatened by pollution such as fertiliser run-off.

As ocean species die or thin out it has an effect right through the ecosystem as they form the base of the food chain as well as an oxygen source.

The voyage will largely be financed by the fashion house Agnes B. and Tara Expeditions has signed several partnership agreements, including one with the global news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"The mission in this case is universal and the adventure unique," said AFP chairman Pierre Louette.

"It's about allowing as many people as possible to see what ails our oceans and what nevertheless still leaves them so rich, and to promote awareness of our natural environment," he said.

"In contributing to science and consciousness by distributing this news across the whole world, AFP is faithful to its own mission."

The Tara is due to sail out of the Breton port of Lorient on Friday or Saturday and head south across the Bay of Biscay towards its first stopover in Lisbon on September 11.

From there, it will round Gibraltar and enter the Mediterranean.
Patrick Filleux /AFP/Expatica 

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