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Protecting the Baltic
March 29, 2012   
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A slew of research projects are under way to help protect the endangered ecosystem of the Baltic Sea, which forms Poland’s northern border.

The Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology in the coastal city of Sopot is carrying out a project in conjunction with several other Polish and Swedish institutions that aims to prevent harmful changes in the Baltic Sea ecosystem. These changes have a detrimental effect on the quality of water in the sea and lead to a shortage of oxygen for fish. The project is called the Wetlands, Algae and Biogas: A Southern Baltic Sea Eutrophication Counteract Project.

The project is expected to contribute to reducing what is known as eutrophication—a process whereby bodies of water receive excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth—by reviving wetlands and removing algae from shores and using them for biogas production and as fertilizers.

The eutrophication of an aquatic system takes place when the system receives large amounts of nitrates and phosphates, researchers say. This results in an expansion of algae. The Baltic Sea is highly influenced by human activity and its ecological balance has been disturbed. Eutrophication is a major environmental concern. The leakage of biogenic substances to the sea leads to an excessive growth of macroalgal species, which accumulate along the seashore, especially in the Southern Baltic area. Eutrophication disturbs the ecosystem, for example by inducing a reduction in fish populations and the blooming of blue-green algae in the middle of the tourist season. These phenomena are a major threat to the tourist sector and the economy of the Southern Baltic coastal areas, which largely depend on tourism. Farming is a major source of the excessive inflow of nitrates and phosphates to the Baltic from fertilizers carried to the sea by rainwater and rivers.

The Wetlands, Algae and Biogas: A Southern Baltic Sea Eutrophication Counteract Project is about a sustainable and integrated management of the coastal zone and water resources in the Southern Baltic region. The project, which also involves farmers, is expected to demonstrate how the inflow of biogenic substances may be reduced by harvesting plants from wetlands and algae from the coastal zone. The project will test new methods for reducing the leakage of biogenic substances to the sea. The collected biomass will be subject to fermentation. The biogas obtained in the process will be used to produce energy. The algae-derived nutrients remaining after fermentation will be reused as fertilizers while pollutants absorbed by the biomass will be removed from the system.

The project is being carried out as part of the South Baltic Cross-Border Cooperation Program and is financed by the European Regional Development Fund. It has three objectives: putting into practice a biogas production process with the use of local resources; reducing the flow of biogenic substances to the Baltic Sea from surrounding areas; and developing a system to collect and transfer data on the state of the sea water and an empirical model for the expansion of macroalgal species and blue-green algae in the Baltic Sea.

Experts believe that the project will contribute to encouraging the international community, including scientists, to share their experience in using energy from renewable sources. All these measures are expected to contribute to protecting Baltic Sea waters from excessive eutrophication.

The leading partner in the project is the municipality of Trelleborg in Scania, Sweden. Other Swedish partners include Lund University and an institution responsible for water management in the southern part of Sweden. The project is supported by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. The government of Poland’s Pomerania province is responsible for promoting the project at the regional level and for using research findings for the development of renewable energy as well as for counteracting eutrophication by pursuing proper environmental policies.

The Polish partners in the project are the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the city of Sopot, the Pomeranian Agricultural Education Center in Gdańsk, the Dolina Redy i Chylonki Association of Districts, and the Pomeranian Center for Environmental Research and Technology (POMCERT) in the city of Gdynia.

Meanwhile, Tomasz Łabuz, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Szczecin in northwestern Poland, is working to draw up a map of changes and processes taking place in sand dunes along the Polish Baltic coast. His research is financed by Poland’s National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) under the Lider (Leader) program.

Łabuz has been researching coastal dunes for 15 years. He says people spending their vacations at the seaside disturb the development of coastal dunes and thus harm surrounding areas.

Sand dunes form an embankment protecting the low-lying land behind them against flooding and storms. They are of strategic importance to people and their property, Łabuz says. Dune shores account for 75 percent of Poland’s 500-kilometer-long Baltic coastline. According to Łabuz, there are only a handful of sites where dunes are expanding on the Polish coast. These include a stretch of the coastline within the Słowiński National Park between Czołpińska Dune and Łącka Hill near Lake Łebsko; a part of the coast at the mouth of the Świna River between the towns of Międzyzdroje and Świnoujście; and the Hel Peninsula spit. Sand dunes are also expanding on both sides of the area where Poland’s largest river, the Vistula, empties into the Baltic. Dunes can only expand if they are overgrown with specific varieties of grass and if there are salt-loving plants on the beach, Łabuz says. If the beach is occupied by sunbathers all day long, he adds, and if a pub opens nearby, sand movement is restricted, the plants are damaged and the dune is unable to expand.

Still, unlike its counterparts in other European countries, Łabuz says, Poland’s Baltic coast harbors long stretches of shoreline free from seaside promenades and high-rise hotels. Polish dunes have high environmental value as a habitat for many species of wildlife, such as birds, beetles, spiders, bees, ants, lizards and snakes. Polish dune habitats have been classified as Natura 2000 sites under the European Union’s Habitat Directive because of their natural value and strategic importance. Many of them are protected.

Łabuz has secured a hefty zl.700,000 for his research project, which is entitled The Distribution and Morphodynamics of Foredunes and Plant Fluctuations: A Biodiverse Habitat of the Polish Coast (FoMoBi).

Karolina Olszewska
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