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Atlantic Interactions Research Centre: A new research platform for the Atlantic Ocean

By Nicole du Plessis, SAEON Egagasini Node
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The Department of Science and Technology hosted a two-day consultative workshop on the Atlantic Interactions Research (AIR) Centre at the CSIR in Cape Town from 13 to 14 September 2018. The meeting was facilitated by Dr Stewart Bernard (CSIR).

The AIR Centre is being formed through the Atlantic Interactions Initiative, a “new intergovernmental initiative to unleash the potential of the Atlantic for society”.

The initiative builds on the existing agreements and initiatives in the basin, such as the Belem Statement and the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance (AORA).

South Africa has been engaged with the Centre since its inception, along with the other core countries - Brazil, Spain and Portugal. A large South African delegation attended the 3rd High Level Dialogue of the AIR Centre in Cape Verde in April 2018 (at which SAEON was represented). The launch of the Centre is to take place at the 4th High Level Dialogue to be held in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, from 26 to 27 November 2018.

The purpose of the meeting in September was to share information on the Centre and provide an opportunity for researchers from South Africa, Namibia and Angola to provide input and identify possible areas of collaboration with the Centre. SAEON was represented by Professor Juliet Hermes and Nicole du Plessis. Nicole presented on the marine biodiversity monitoring being undertaken by SAEON.

Current priority areas for development in the Centre are Marine Resources and Biodiversity; Healthy and Clean Ocean; System Integration from Outer Space to Deep Ocean; Mitigation and Adaptation to Climate Change and Natural Hazards; Sustainable Energy Systems; and Data Science.


Participants in the AIR Centre Workshop hosted by the Department of Science and Technology in Cape Town in September 2018

Cross-cutting initiatives

Three cross-cutting initiatives are being developed in parallel to support the scientific agenda:

  • The AIR DataNet - to facilitate access to supercomputing and big data projects;
  • The Atlantic Research Infrastructures - to facilitate standardisation, good practices and access of the wider scientific community to research and observation infrastructures; and
  • Science for All - to facilitate training, education, science awareness and citizen science. 

Key challenges raised were the limited in-situ monitoring capabilities within the African countries; the challenges associated with students and researchers receiving training abroad on advanced research programmes but then not being able to use or apply this knowledge back home to relevant issues in the communities; and the ‘brain drain’ of students who receive training abroad and, after being exposed to advanced and well-funded research communities, choose not to return home.

Multilateral research engagements in the Atlantic Basin

There are number of initiatives within the Atlantic Basin such as the Belem Statement on Atlantic Research and Innovation Cooperation. Signatories to this include South Africa, Brazil and the EU at the launch of the South Atlantic Research and Innovation Flagship Initiative at the historic Belém Tower in Lisbon, Portugal held from 13 to 14 July 2017.

Common areas of interest were listed as climate variability and ecosystem approaches; ocean observation (including seabed mapping, forecasting and monitoring processes and systems); food security, fisheries management, aquaculture and biodiversity; oceans technology (including for observation and renewable marine energy); the effects of emerging pollutants; and polar research (especially interconnections between the Atlantic, South Ocean and Antarctica).

This is the initiative under which South Africa is engaging with the AIR Centre and working towards building South-South collaboration on ocean science and technology.

Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Engagement - signatories to this are the European Union (EU), Canada and United States of America (USA) at the high-level event, ‘The Atlantic - A shared resource’ held from 23 to 24 May 2013 at the Marine Institute, Galway, Ireland. The cooperation between the countries is meant to ‘increase our knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean and its dynamic systems - including interlinks with the portion of the Arctic Region that borders the Atlantic - by aligning our ocean observation efforts to improve ocean health and stewardship and promote the sustainable management of its resources.

Areas identified for potential cooperation under the agreement include:

  • Ocean observation;
  • Sharing of data, such as on temperature, salinity and acidity;
  • Interoperability and coordination of observing infrastructures, such as measurement buoys and research vessels;
  • Sustainable management of ocean resources;
  • Seabed and benthic habitat mapping;
  • Promoting researcher mobility; and
  • Identifying and recommending future research priorities.

This has led to programmes such as the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance (AORA) and AtlantOS, an EU H2020 project to give effect to the Galway Statement. South African involvement in AtlantOS is listed on the website as through the CSIR and the University of Cape Town.

Benguela Current Convention (BCC) between South Africa, Namibia and Angola. Previously known as the Benguela Current Commission and primarily focused on the cross-boundary management of the fisheries resources, the BCC Strategic Action Programme (2015-2019) is focused on eight themes: 1) marine living resources; (2) non-living resources; (3) productivity and environmental variability; (4) pollution; (5) ecosystem health; (6) human dimensions; (7) potential for economic development; and (8) governance.

These, and other programmes, have numerous common priorities, including pollution, ocean observation and sustainable management of resources. South Africa, in collaboration with Brazil, has released the South-South Framework for Scientific and Technical Cooperation in the South and Tropical Atlantic and Southern Oceans.

How well South Africa makes use of these opportunities and advances its own interests may depend on having a more coordinated approach between government, universities, research institutes, business and civil society.

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