Diving into craters and faults to map the complex terrain of the seabed

While significant efforts have been made recently to upgrade and boost research in Greece, chiefly by means of institutional reform such as at the National Research Foundation, efforts to formulate a genuine national scientific research strategy remain nebulous. Official bodies have not tackled up to now, for example, the tasks of exploring the deep, monitoring water quality, locating sources of pollution or charting and investigating the seabed, because there is neither sufficient money to fund missions nor, until recently, was there a specific policy on research. Over the past 20 years or so, however, efforts have been slowly beefed up. EU to the rescue HCMR missions generally either involve programs whose cost is covered by European Union funds or targeted programs of utilities and other public bodies. They have included the geophysics study of the seabed for the Rio-Antirio bridge, charting levels of pollutants emitted by the Larko factory, and salvaging aircraft that have fallen into the sea – such as the Chinook helicopter that was retrieved from a depth of 865 meters. «Seventy percent of the programs are funded by the EU. They mainly concern EU policy and do not serve purely national purposes,» said Chronis. «The money for national research is limited and strategy is non-existent. The mission to the interior of the Columbo crater on Santorini, the exploration of coral reefs in Crete and the Amorgos fault are funded exclusively by the center. We don’t pay the staff so that we can carry them out,» he added. Marine research in Greece celebrated its 60th anniversary a few days ago with some events at Zappeion Hall, but as Chronis pointed out, the first substantive steps have taken place only in the past 20 years thanks to financial support from the EU. «Twenty years ago, there was no marine research in Greece. We managed to become competitive because of the EU. When circumstances permit, Greece must lay more emphasis on research. We are last among the [old] 15 EU member states in that respect.» The Greek seas conceal natural treasures but also garbage dumps, HCMR research has shown. The complex relief of the seabed includes coral formations, seismic faults hundreds of meters deep, craters such as the Columbo on Santorini, and the Hellenic Trench of the coast of Methoni in the western Peloponnese, which at 4,000 meters is the deepest point in the Mediterranean. During the recent Nautilus 2005 operation, scientists from the Oceanography Institute discovered two old shorelines west of Crete at a depth of 85 and 135 meters. They described what was a beach when the sea level was dozens of meters lower as looking «like a road on the slopes of a submarine mountain.» In the same area, at a depth of more than 500 meters, they found what geologists call a mirror fault. It is a black, smooth surface about 30 meters high, which they believe was formed by an earthquake during antiquity. Furthermore, in late April, the manned bathyscaphe Thetis dived into the Columbo crater for the first time, and observed that the volcanic crater is still active. «Research never ends,» commented Chronis. «We are constantly seeking new data.» Meanwhile, there is a danger that fish stocks in the seas around Greece will diminish rapidly in the near future. The Mediterranean is naturally low in nutrients and overfishing represents a serious threat. «Overfishing is the number one problem, perhaps even greater than that of pollution. HCMR, through Institute of Marine Biology resources, is monitoring the development of fish stocks, but no specific fishing policy is being implemented,» said Chronis. The seabed is a sorry sight in many places where heaps of garbage are moved about by the currents. A typical example is the Thermaic Gulf in northern Greece, where the seabed looks more like a trash dump than a marine environment. «The entire Mediterranean is full of rubbish. It comes mainly from passenger and cargo ships and is the main cause of death for dolphins and other sea creatures,» he said.