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[SANTIAGO] Universities in Latin America and Europe have joined forces to form the Latin American and European School of Oceanography to research issues including climate change and food security.

The school's creation was announced this month by the project's coordinator, Tarsicio Antezana, a professor in the oceanography department at the University of Concepción in Chile, from which the school's activities will be coordinated.

Antezana told SciDev.Net that the initiative aims to promote international cooperation both in education, and in research. It will promote development of joint research projects in areas such as the El Niño phenomenon — a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that can lead to significant shifts in global weather patterns — and sustainable fisheries.

"Fisheries research is one of the main priorities for the Latin American institutions participating in this international network," says Antezana.

The Latin American universities joining the international school of oceanography are the University of Costa Rica, Jorge Tadeo Lozano University (Colombia), National Agricultural University of La Molina (Peru), El Litoral Polytechnic (Ecuador) and the University of Concepción.

The four European universities participating are Kiel University (Germany), Vigo University (Spain), Gothenburg University (Sweden) and Plymouth University (United Kingdom). More institutions from Europe and Latin America are expected to join soon. The project is funded by the European Union and the nine participating universities.

From January 2005, the universities will work to harmonise their graduate and post-graduate educational programmes to facilitate student exchanges, collaborative research projects and the sharing of research facilities, such as laboratories, instruments and research cruises.

According to Antezana, the initiative will be useful for countries that still have poor facilities for oceanographic research. "While European countries have dozens of scientific vessels, in Chile, for instance, there are only one or two ships for oceanic research, despite the lengthy coastline and the intensive fishing industry which is putting the marine resources at risk," he says.

Antezana adds that oceanographic studies are increasingly complex and expensive because they require diverse equipment and data sources — including buoys, satellites, scientific vessels and historical records — from distant parts of the planet.

"The scale of such studies is so large that many countries in the South have no capacity to develop them on their own," he says. "Thus international cooperation is the only way to be an active player in the process of creating and applying new knowledge in this field."

The European universities will concentrate on studies of the Antarctic ocean and of global climate change. The Latin American universities are expected to focus their research on fisheries, aquaculture, marine pollution, and the Humboldt current. This is the cold water current off the west coast of South America that brings nutrients from deeper waters and sustains fish populations. In El Niño years, it is replaced by nutrient-poor warm water that can lead to the collapse of fisheries.

The specific themes of future collaborative projects will depend on the particular interests of graduate and undergraduate students participating in the network.