Helmholtz European Partnering - GEOMAR and the University of Malta


GEOMAR - Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel is Germany’s largest marine science research organisation with more than 1000 employees and large-scale infrastructure including four research vessels, state-of-the art geophysical equipment such as remote operated vehicles (ROV), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), and unique 3D seismic imaging capabilities. The most recent program oriented funding evaluation (POF) concluded that GEOMAR is outstanding and among the top five marine research institutions worldwide. GEOMAR will cofund SMART through provision of staff time including a dedicated PhD position and direct funding for conducting the marine science expeditions as well as contributing unique expertise in science management and organisational support.

University of Malta

The Marine Geology & Seafloor Surveying (MGSS) group, set up within the Department of Geosciences (Faculty of Science, UoM) in 2015, undertakes multidisciplinary studies of seafloor and sub-seafloor environments using advanced and observational techniques to understand the fundamental processes and dynamics of seafloor and sub-seafloor evolution. Comprising 4 Research Support Officers and 2 PhD students, the group is leader of 1, and participant in 4, international projects on themes covering seafloor evolution, marine hydrogeology, geomorphometry and habitat mapping. MGSS and GEOMAR have been partners in the MARCAN project since 2015. Prof. Micallef has been collaborating with Prof. Berndt since 2010.

UoM and MGSS offer the full range of facilities and infrastructure necessary to complement the SMART project, and are an ideal partner for such a multidisciplinary project. These facilities include: (i) library and online journals; (ii) high performance workstations and a supercomputing cluster; (iii) specialized software (e.g. PGEOFE, ArcGIS, CARIS, Kingdom, Matlab, Fledermaus); (iv) office space and IT support; (v) laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment and field tools for geological, geotechnical and hydraulic measurements; (vi) sediment/rock core storage; (vii) access to a 37 m research vessel.

In order to support this partnership initiative, UoM and MGSS will also provide:

● Data acquired during MARCAN and previous research projects;

● Research Support Officer IV position for 5 years;

● Offices and laboratory space and facilities at Ta’ Xmiexi (Msida);

● Conference and lecture facilities at Msida and Valletta campuses.

Photos: Aaron Micallef/UoM & Marion Jegen/GEOMAR

Cooperation and capacity building activities

Capacity building at UoM can be divided largely into the following categories: scientific visibility, administrative collaboration, gender awareness, and data management. To improve technical knowledge and scientific visibility of UoM in the field of offshore groundwater research, we will conduct advanced training schools on geophysics and geochemistry data processing at UoM in 2018 (scheduled), 2019, and 2020. On the other hand, UoM will conduct advanced training schools on hydrogeological modelling at GEOMAR in 2020. To further improve the collaboration, exchange of staff and students between the two institutions will be encouraged. These activities will include short term visits for senior staff and a placement of the two PhD students at UoM for three months each to incorporate the geophysical and geological results into the hydrogeological models. If possible, we endeavor to participate on a senior level in the scientific advisory boards of GEOMAR and UoM. Furthermore, we have planned visits of administrative staff from UoM to GEOMAR. The aim of these visits is to exchange views and experience on the following topics: gender balancing and awareness, data management, and good scientific practice. Because of the different cultural backgrounds, the potential to learn from each other is high. Within GEOMAR, various initiatives exist to improve the gender balance in science and technology. In 2013 GEOMAR has founded the Women's executive board, where female principal investigators meet to discuss gender related issues in science. A Gender Equality Plan was set up in 2015 to stimulate structural changes. GEOMAR is also coordinating the Baltic Gender EU project (https://www.baltic-gender.eu). Within this project, research organisations of various Baltic countries compare and discuss gender equality plans and exchange experience on how to address gender issues in science. We would like to share/exchange our experience and approaches with Maltese administrators and equal opportunity representative Prof. Marie-Theres Camilleri Podesta. Of particular interest would be an exchange about the recommendations of the Baltic Gender project (see https://www.baltic-gender.eu/outcomes). Gender related issues will be supported by Dr. Marion Jegen, who is part of the women's executive board and by GEOMAR’s equal opportunity office Hela Mehrtens. Research data management and open data are key topics in science and technology worldwide. Describing data workflows and making data FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) is of increasing importance. At GEOMAR, a central data management team is involved in building up sustainable and linked data portals and to allow data exchange and archiving. The aim is to offer discipline-specific solutions to exchange and reuse research data worldwide. Christian Berndt is ombudsman for good scientific practice at GEOMAR and he will exchange experience with the Maltese counterpart at UoM.

Obviously, joint scientific publications on OAs will be the backbone of the scientific visibility of this collaboration project. However, we will also organise joint sessions at the major geophysical conferences (AGU, EGU, etc.) to put offshore groundwater research on the international scientific agenda.

Benefits of cooperation

Benefits for GEOMAR

SMART will put offshore groundwater research firmly on the research agenda of GEOMAR.

Groundwater research has been identified as one of the grand challenges for HGF, and it has so far not been addressed in the POF Oceans. By conducting this project we are laying the groundwork to include groundwater research in POF IV and thus strengthen the links within Division of Earth and Environment, in particular with UFZ Leipzig with whom we have developed the Ra sensor for offshore groundwater seeps.

Moreover, SMART is an ideal initiative to increase the international visibility of GEOMAR’s department of Marine Geodynamics. During the POF III evaluation we were encouraged to adapt further international leadership roles. By setting up a partnership program with UoM, we will develop a bridgehead in the Mediterranean region from where we would be able to lead and support the international scientific community and make large-scale infrastructure - such as German research vessels, high-resolution 3D seismic acquisition systems or remote operated vehicles - accessible to a wider community.

Benefits for UoM and Malta

The seafloor comprises 99% of the Maltese national territory, yet marine research has never been a priority for Maltese governments. Participation of UoM in the Helmholtz European Partnering project is a unique opportunity to bring about a step change in marine research in the Maltese Islands and build capacity in this field. Scientists from GEOMAR will work full time with scientists from the UoM, on a theme that is important for UoM, Malta as a country (Smart Specialisation), as well as Europe in general. UoM scientists will have the opportunity to be trained by, and publish jointly with, eminent marine scientists from GEOMAR. UoM scientists will also have the opportunity to participate in an oceanographic expedition in Maltese waters and access state-of-the-art technology on board a German research vessel. GEOMAR will also provide expertise and assistance with developing seafloor surveying instruments for UoM. The overall strategic goals of MGSS for the near future are:

  • To establish a research cluster of multidisciplinary academic and industrial partners that focuses on the exploration and exploitation of offshore groundwater resources;
  • To become the leading global scientific centre in this field by attracting increasing amounts of external funding, expanding staff, build infrastructure etc.

Participation of MGSS in the Helmholtz European Partnering project is an important stage in achieving these goals. MGSS will become the point of contact for southern European and African countries for sustainable use of offshore freshwater resources. The HGF partnership initiative will help the University of Malta to consolidate the MGSS group and provide support in the crucial first phase. SMART will also enable the Maltese Islands to sustainably use offshore groundwater as an alternative source of freshwater.

Future perspectives

The aim of SMART is to develop the necessary methodology and best practice guidelines within the first three years of the project. For the extension period in year 4 and 5, we envisage a major proof of concept campaign in a different study area. For this campaign we will seek co-funding during the first three years of the project. Potential study areas include the offshore areas in Sweden, South Africa, and Tunisia where suitable OAs exist. Together with UoM colleagues, we will seek to initiate an EU project on OAs. (e.g. INFRADEV for development of new world-class research infrastructures which will help Europe to respond to grand challenges in science, industry and society; Marie Curie Action ITN on offshore groundwater). The preparatory work for the EU proposal will be laid during the stakeholder workshop in Kiel. There are plans for an infrastructure proposal that enables UoM to collect the necessary geophysical and geochemical data on their own through a collaboration agreement with GEOMAR to access large-scale infrastructure that cannot sensibly be hosted in Malta. A first step in this direction is the application for infrastructure funds in conjunction with the ongoing ERC grant MARCAN.

It is likely that we will identify the need for further ground-truthing in addition to the existing boreholes of Malta during the first three years of the proposal. Therefore we intend to apply for an IODP Mission specific platform campaign through ECORD to ground truth the numerical predictions for offshore Malta through MeBo drilling. Furthermore, we will utilise the results of the first three years of SMART to collaborate with the Department of Environment and Resources Law at UoM to address the legal aspects related to groundwater exploitation. The mid-term perspective (beyond the five year project duration) is to initiate a vibrant research programme around offshore groundwater resources in which the UoM and GEOMAR are world leaders and where the infrastructure and methodology is used worldwide to further our understanding of the involved processes and lead to sustainable use of these resources.