Interview with Mike Roman: “The Barcelona World Race skippers will be scientists out there...”

Mike Roman is Past-President of The Oceanographic Society (TOS) and President of the Scientific Committee for the 2nd International Ocean Research Conference to be held in Barcelona from the 17th to the 21st of November. The American oceanographer visited Barcelona where he joined Luis Valdés, the Director of Ocean Sciences at the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC) to visit the venue for the second grand meeting of the oceanographic community of the decade. He was interviewed by Santi Serrat.

Interviews FEB 20, 2014 01:00

Watch Mike Roman's video interview

It's been almost a decade since the first conference. Do we know much more about the ocean after all these years?

We know more about the weather, the pulse of the ocean and the ocean itself and we have been remotely measuring salinity levels, wave height etc. There are sensors all over the ocean which do a much better job of getting information in real time, so that if there's a tsunami, if there's a pollution event, they can collect the data and our scientists can look at it immediately. All this data coming in couldn't be handled without larger, faster computers and so the revolution in computing that has affected all parts of society has also had a huge impact on oceanography. These new computers allow us to collect the data, to model it and to project what the climate will be in fifty or one hundred years. It has changed the way we study the ocean. Another aspect is the molecular revolution, genomics; looking at the different genetic manifestations of things. We may look at the same species but they have genetically adapted to climate change. Our scientists are able to use genomics to unravel all of the interactions that are happening in the sea. This was just starting to happen ten years ago, so these major advances have drastically changed the way we study the ocean and the rate at which we are accumulating knowledge of the ocean.

How have The Oceanography Society and Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission adapted to these changes?

The biggest change to adapt to has been the rapid rate of learning. The Oceanography Society and the IOC have new means through websites, meetings, publications and conferences like the one that is going to happen in Barcelona, for scientists to share information and these are new forums for the exchange of ideas. Also both organisations are trying to encourage young, early career-scientists to learn new techniques to network internationally. It's a global ocean and countries are working together to tackle these important problems. Both the IOC and The Oceanography Society are trying to build the oceanographic capacity of young scientists and also the capacity of developing nations.

What is the importance of the organisation of a scientific conference directly related to oceanographic research?What are the main objectives?

Well I think the main objective of the conference is to assess the progress that we've made in the last decade and also to plan for the future. It is important for the EU, Asia, the United States and other nations planning oceanography for the next decade to get people talking, to come up with new ideas and to then bring those to our governments to put in place oceanography programmes for the next decade.

Do you think that Barcelona, as a Mediterranean capital, offers a special setting for this conference?

I think it's an ideal place for the conference for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has a rich naval history and then Barcelona also has a rich history of scientists working in the fields of marine biology and oceanography. Spain was one of the countries to lead an effort for all of the countries around the Mediterranean to stop discharging pollutants into the water and Barcelona was the city to start that movement. It's also a wonderful place to visit and so by having the event in Barcelona many people will want to come not only for the conference but to see the beautiful city. I think it's a wonderful place to have this conference.

This is my first time in Barcelona and I look forward to coming back for the conference. I've been to other parts of Spain but I have always wanted to visit Barcelona and so it's a great opportunity to me to see a wonderful city, but also to take part in this conference. I'm trying to tell as many people as I know about the wonderful place and that they shouldn't miss this opportunity to learn good science but also to see a wonderful city!

Now we understand that everything is connected and there is no scientific field that can be considered separately. How to raise public awareness of the importance of the message One Planet One Ocean?

I think we've made some conscious decisions when planning the conference, not only to include natural sciences but also oceanography, fisheries, physical oceanography and social sciences. We want to involve the people who will take the scientific discoveries and work with public policy, with education. We want them to take these new discoveries to our school children to excite them about science. In my opinion you can't just have scientists talking to scientists, you need scientists with educators, with public policy makers, with economists. You might have the best scientific discoveries but unless you influence the human dimension it's in isolation. That's a special force behind this conference.

Can linking the sport of sailing to ocean science be an option?

Anyone who has spent time on a boat, as I have, knows that you're at the mercy of the environment; you have to understand the wind, you have to understand the currents. People who sail are also oceanographers because they have to understand their environment to be successful in navigating and sailing. You have this wonderful round the world race here in Barcelona and the chance for the sailors to be the eyes of children in schools and of politicians, and for them to see first-hand what these sailors are seeing all around the world. We must take advantage of this wonderful programme which you have, to translate the science and the observations to people all over the world through this exciting race. Not only will they share in the hardships but they will share in their discoveries of seeing dolphins, whales and strange birds. If they can communicate that to the people it would be fantastic, because they would be following them around the world and sharing in their discoveries.

Are you a fan of sailing?

I think I had my first sailboat when I was about twelve or fourteen, and I sailed in coastal waters of the United States. When I lived in Florida I had another sailboat I would sail across our Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, nothing like these adventurous people, but I didn't have a GPS, I just had a compass and I had to use a sextant, like the ancient mariners... but I was never too far from land, not like these adventurers! I am very respectful and delighted by their accomplishments, it's a rare feat to navigate around the world with this hardship.

What do you think of the projects in development for the next Barcelona World Race to measure salinity and temperature using Argo floats; onboard cameras to measure the of transparency and colour of seawater and microplastics filters?

The measurement programme for the race is very important and in the same way satellites are used to predict storms, these sensors can see what is happening under the water. In taking advantage of this network of sensors we have in the ocean measuring temperature and currents, their work will not only add to our understanding of the world's oceans, but will give it greater relevance; the Barcelona World Race skippers will be scientists out there, not just sailors and they will be collecting data that will help many people.

What is the tangible reality of climate change?

With the skippers sailing around the world every three years collecting temperature data and the other data, during their racing lifetimes they are likely to see changes in the oceans. We already have proof that the world's oceans have heated up over the past fifty years and proof that the oceans have absorbed a lot of the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere; we have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide by about thirty percent since the 1950s, resulting in the acidification of the oceans and the stress and disappearance of our corals, as well as many other things we have seen. These are realities. We have more intense storms in certain areas and that is something the sailors taking part in the race may encounter. These brave navigators who sail around the world will actually see some of the effects of climate change.