Open letter – Communiqué

We write an open letter on behalf of a large scientific network (MEDSALT) of European scientists in which framework the project MEDSALT2 has been conceived and submitted to the Spanish authorities for authorization.

We have been the focus of several news the last days and we think we should have the opportunity to add first-hand information about this project and clear doubts that some statements may trigger about the scope of our research.

The MEDSALT Network is financed by the COST Association, a European funding institution that acts in the framework of the Horizon 2020 Program (www.cost.eu). We aim, as you have correctly reported in your first news on April 24, to investigate the most dramatic environmental crisis that the Mediterranean Sea has suffered in its geological history: The Messinian Salinity Crisis, when, about 6 millions years ago, the restriction of the Gibraltar strait has allowed the excess evaporation of the Mediterranean Sea waters causing the deposition of up to 2 kilometers of salts (carbonates, gypsum and halite), implying, according to the most popular theory, a lowering of the Mediterranean Sea level by up one kilometre or even more, transforming the Mediterranean Sea in a giant natural salt pond.

The event affected the mammal migration from Africa to Europe, impacted on the landscape evolution of the Entire Mediterranean basin, and affected the chemistry of the global ocean. Some recent scientific outputs of this project have received the interest of the national press (El Pais, 5 de Abril 2018).  We are geologists, geophysicists, biologists, ecologists. Because the salt layer lays below the present day Mediterranean seafloor, besides a few limited outcrops on land uplifted by mountain building processes, it is inevitable that we need to explore the subsurface before we sample these rocks and sediments.

To do so we use geophysical exploration techniques (ecographic technique) that use the renowned ‘airgun’. The use of airgun is known to impact on certain marine animals, primarily cetaceans. Therefore, all operators of airguns, and especially researchers from public institutions like us, adopt widely recognized measures to mitigate such impact. Indeed, the Spanish authorities adopt very strict requirements about mitigation, that include a very detailed environmental assessment report, that we have submitted already twice according to the Spanish law. We incorporate to our ship mission four professional mammal observers (biologists) and passive acoustic monitors to avoid any possible disturbance to the fauna.

Through investigations carried out in the last years, we have identified the southern Balearic margin as a unique area in the Western Mediterranean, where the salt rocks deposited during the Messinian Salinity Crisis are preserved in a pristine condition, and in small thickness, so that they can be accessed for sampling. The oceanographic cruise MEDSALT2 for which we have requested the authorization to the Spanish authorities, has the purpose to complete the past investigations for a duration of 7 days.

We note that local associations for environmental protection, namely the Aliança Mar Blava, has stated repeatedly with own press releases and through interviews in the press, that we are indeed hiding interests of oil companies to drill for oil and gas around the Balearic islands. They base this assumption on the fact that the MEDSALT project has received letters of support, prior to funding by the COST Association, by some hydrocarbon companies. They have also associated our target working area to the much wider area for which some companies had expressed interest for exploration in 2013, now abandoned. We are fully sympathetic with the legitimate aspiration to oppose industrial development around the Balearic and preserve the beautiful natural resources for tourism and leisure activities, on which the economy of the islands is based. However, the interpretation that has been made of our project is unfounded and simplistic and puts at risk a decade of work in which we have sought to understand that period of the formation of the Mediterranean.

Hydrocarbon companies do not need public researchers to find oil and gas. Companies have they own experts, and resources that are much more important than ours, both in terms of funds and technological means. Companies may become interested in the results of our research to improve their general understanding of the geological formation of the Mediterranean. Indirectly, this could contribute to their findings elsewhere, but not specifically in the Balearic Islands. In fact, the sampling of rocks that we want to achieve through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) requires that we carry out the MEDSALT2 campaign precisely to guarantee that there are no traces of hydrocarbons in our study area, as they would not be compatible with the technology that we want for us.

Ironically, our project, attempting to confirm the absence of hydrocarbons, is being misinterpreted as pursuing the opposite objective. The IODP project operates only where the absence of hydrocarbons has been proven. Finally, the reader outside research should know that the interest of the private sector is routinely stimulated by all public funding agencies to encourage a better preparation of students for their professional future in private companies. Therefore, it is usual and almost mandatory to find interest from the private sector in proposals such as ours.

We are public employees. All we do is transparent. Our web portal www.medsalt.eu contains all our activity (meetings, training schools, short scientific missions, and dissemination). Anyone can see what we do and contact us to ask for information. We invite anyone who has questions about our research to let us know. We offer to participate in an event in the Balearic Island open to the public, in which we can illustrate our research, answer questions and clarify any aspect of our work that may trigger concern.

 

4 May 2018

 

Angelo Camerlenghi, Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale, Trieste

Johanna Lofi, Université de Montpellier

Claudia Bertoni, Oxford University

Daniel Garcia Castellanos, ICTJA, CSIC, Barcelona

Giovanni Aloisi, Institut du Physique du Globe, Paris

Francisco Sierro, Universidad de Salamanca

and the nearly 200 members of the scientific network MEDSALT