ITW with Etienne Bourgois: Tara, from the Arctic to the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris

© N.Pansiot/Tara Expéditions

Aboard Tara on the Ecopolaris mission in Greenland, Etienne Bourgois, director of Tara Expeditions,  is launching a call to include the Ocean in negotiations about climate issues.

In preparation for the next climate conference to be held in Paris this winter (COP21), he highlights for us the challenges of ocean and climate. Motivated by his commitment to the environment, Etienne Bourgois clearly hopes to raise the awareness of the COP21 negotiators, and recalls the crucial role the ocean plays in the climate system.

This summer you organized the Tara-Ecopolaris mission in Greenland. Is this expedition a follow-up to Tara’s other Arctic missions?

We’ve taken the opportunity in 2015, a transitional year between two major expeditions, to return to Greenland 10 years after our first mission with GREA, the Arctic Ecology Research Group that has  been studying this region for over 30 years. Now we will have new data to compare with findings from that time. Tara knows this region well. Since our last visit, the Arctic has become a center of major interest. When Tara accomplished the Arctic drift in 2007, the %IPCC% was not even talking about melting glaciers and especially those of Greenland. This is very recent.

In fact, this year is rather particular for Greenland. There’s an abundance of ice, in contrast with the rest of the Arctic, where the surface of the ice pack at the end of winter had decreased by one million km2  compared to the last 30 years. This is a record. The winter was very cold. The polar vortex broke up several times. Maritime inflows caused a lot of snow and for weeks constant northeasterly winds have been pushing all this ice to the south. The ice is very dense and descends along the east coast and the west coast too. It’s pretty rare at this time of year – a direct consequence of the melting ice and the climate warming very quickly.

Tara will be in Paris in December at the next United Nations climate conference. What are your expectations for COP21?

Here we are today, 6 years after the Copenhagen conference which many of us remember as a major failure. Citizen mobilization was strong at the time, but the participating States did not give strong enough signals before the conference. We feel a greater mobilization now than for the previous conference. The COP21 in France offers us another chance to reach an overall agreement. This agreement has been under negotiation for decades. By the end of this year, 195 countries should engage in favor of the climate. Despite the global crisis, a new dynamic must take hold so that every country, region, city, and company engages in this path. In 2020, the Kyoto Protocol will lapse. Not only should all countries be at the table in Paris, but this conference must give rise to an agreement ambitious enough to maintain global warming at a 2-degree increase by the end of this century.

What scientific findings were made by the Tara Oceans expedition concerning the impact of climate change on the ocean?

The data collected during the Tara Oceans expedition is an absolutely unique resource for understanding the oceans. Thousands of samples allow us for the first time to prepare a detailed mapping of planktonic diversity. In a way, we have established the genome of the sea.

This means that we can now explore the interactions between microorganisms that were previously unknown. Even more important, these results will allow us to determine the impact of environmental conditions on this microscopic ecosystem. Now, with the latest publications of Tara Oceans, we can show that water temperature is a major factor in the distribution of plankton. This brings us to the base of the food chain and its variations. On Earth, 2 billion people live within 100 km of the coast, and a billion depend directly on ocean resources.

Other researchers have shown that acidification, that is to say, the pH of water – decreasing today because of the CO2 emitted by humans – also affects the distribution of plankton. Seas and oceans do not all have the same density, salinity, acidity, nor the same levels of oxygen. More and more information is coming out to complement the research done during the long Tara Oceans expedition across the world’s oceans. All of these findings will contribute to a modelization of the evolution of marine biodiversity, and an understanding of a previously unknown world, in view of a future climate.

Have you succeeded in organizing discussions about the oceans?

It’s not enough to organize discussions! Reaching an agreement is essential. For Tara, it’s about getting policy makers to better understand how the Ocean regulates climate, and convince everyone that the greater the impacts on the Ocean, the less the Ocean will be able to provide mechanisms of climate regulation. These produce 50% of the oxygen we breathe and sequester nearly 25% of CO2. We do not realize that major changes are underway in the Ocean.

Today, considerable scientific advances give us legitimacy in several ways – because Tara has been committed for a very long time to giving the Ocean a voice in climate discussions. Since our experience joining forces with others at Rio+20, Tara has developed an advocacy program including insights for policy makers that should be very widely diffused. Making the Ocean’s voice audible cannot be done alone!

Along with other organizations, we have been at work well before the inception of the Ocean-Climate Platform that today unites the efforts of 60 partners.

Together we launched the Ocean Call for Climate on World Oceans Day (at UNESCO on June 8  2015). In response, a first commitment by Laurent Fabius will help devote a day to the oceans during the COP21. All interested parties must take action!

What will the role of Tara be during the COP21?

The schooner will be the Ambassador of the Ocean in Paris. Tara, docked on the Seine, will bring the Ocean to the COP21. At the Ocean and Climate Pavillon installed under the Pont Alexandre III on the Seine alongside Tara, we will organize debates, conferences, educational workshops, exchanges with NGOs and scientists, so that everyone can grasp this issue. As for scientists, Françoise Gaill has gathered around this platform 30 researchers, including Eric Karsenti and others from the Tara Oceans expedition. A very strong statement will be made. We will act as a catalyst for all these initiatives, working together to finally make the voice of the Ocean heard.

Interview by Dino Di Meo aboard Tara

Together, let’s give the Ocean a voice!

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Related articles:

- Learn more about Tara, member of the Ocean & Climate Platform

- Read the full article about the Ocean Call for Climate

- Learn more about the Tara Oceans results

- Follow Tara, on the way to the Paris Climate Conference through our photos and videos