Tallinn University of Technology

The Baltic Sea has been struggling for decades, and new worries have risen. "The damage that has already been done to the sea is difficult to repair, and we should direct our efforts to eliminate new pollutants from coming in," says marine scientist Urmas Lips.

Urmas Lips allveeliugur MIA-ga, mis teeb "Estonia” vraki juures mõõtmisi

Pictured: Urmas Lips and the underwater explorer MIA, which the Institute of Marine Systems is currently employing to take measurements at the wreck of the “Estonia”.

In the case of the Baltic Sea's health, the general opinion tends to be that is very bad. However Urmas Lips, a researcher at the TalTech Institute of Marine Systems, says that actually the situation has improved over the last couple of decades, although there is still a long way to go. "The worries about the Baltic Sea have not changed, and it is largely a matter of time," explains Lips. "First, the abundance of nutrients which causes excessive algal blooms, changes in the aquatic ecosystem and lack of oxygen in the bottom layers started as early as 1960-70. At the same time, the use of very large amounts of fertilizer in the fields left much to be desired in what concerns to the treatment capacity of domestic wastewater and agricultural water, ” further explains Lips. According to him, pollution has gradually decreased, but since the sea is a relatively closed body of water, it will take time to clean up. "It took ten years to ruin the environment, and it will take 50 years for it to return to normal," says the researcher.

Another concern are other man-made dangerous substances, for which we have to look to the past again. "Insecticides and plant protection products were once widely used - they are now restricted. Poisons such as tin compounds, have been found in the paint of old ships. Although such chemicals are no longer used, toxic residues are still present in marine sediments. Again, our past actions have a lasting impact. ”

Urmas Lips mentions medicinal residues as a more recent problem-and mentions that they do not last as long in the marine environment as the older pollutants. And, of course, we also have to talk about the existence of trash in the Baltic Sea.
“Directly concerning people's garbage, of course, things are much worse in the south, but in Estonia the coast and the sea are in relatively good condition. But we still have micro-waste, including microplastics, in the sea, ”says Urmas Lips.

Micro-waste could remain in the sediment

Urmas Lips is one of the researchers currently participating in the development of the new Estonian Marine Strategy Action Plan. "We are doing this in cooperation with the authorities and many experts. One of the topics is micro-waste. The position of our institute is that collecting it from the sea is not practical, as it is a complicated and very expensive process. We suggested that the places where the microplastic enters the sea should be fixed. In fact, the sources are known - microplastics enter the seawater from domestic, industrial and rainwater sources. This means that proper and efficient filtration systems, as efficient as possible, should be installed in our water treatment plants, including where wastewater and stormwater flow into. In this way, we prevent new micro-waste from entering the sea. ”

However, plastic particles that have previously entered the water will eventually sink to the bottom sediment over time, as have done other hazardous substances. "We have seen this in sediment samples from the deeper layers where they have sunk over the years," says the marine scientist.

However, clean-up operations take place when explosives left over from war are discovered or there is a risk of fuel leaking from a sunken shipwreck. Marine scientists are important partners in various projects taking place in the sea. "For example, we conduct environmental impact studies for offshore wind farms. We are also a partner in the study of  "Estonia" wreck. Right now the Institute for Marine Systems' autonomous devices are measuring the turbidity of the water on the seabed. This data tells us whether it's good to go to the bottom to take pictures of the wreck. We can do all this because we have our own research ship, ”says Lips.

Not without "Salme"

The research vessel “Salme” of the TalTech Institute of Marine Systems is a vessel equipped with modern scientific equipment and two laboratories, which the university researchers and students use to sail  the Baltic Sea. "Our students cannot be trained in any other way, they still have to go to sea," mentions Urmas Lips. “In addition to study-related cruises, we are also happy to take students to the institute's contract research. This is a very good practice and we can also pay a scholarship.”

"Sometimes it happens that a young person gets on board and can't stand sailing. But I have seen how interest on the marine environment can be stronger than seasickness, ”says Lips, who says that the body can be trained to work on the water. "The most important thing is interest and love for the sea. It is a separate breed of people who study marine science or oceanography, ”says Urmas Lips, adding that it is now possible to study marine science at the University of Technology again, as the subjects are included in the joint new curriculum of the Institute of Marine Systems and Geology "Earth Systems, Climate and Technologies".  

Excitement for technology and the Baltic Sea

The influence of technology, to which the name of the curriculum also refers, cannot be reversed in the field of oceanography. Urmas Lips states that the Institute of Marine Systems uses modern autonomous equipment in its work. "Technology is important because it is not possible to be everywhere, since it is expensive. That is why more and more economical and intelligent devices are being developed that can operate independently in the marine environment. They measure a variety of indicators and provide a good database from which we can make different choices related to the marine environment. Marine research can be found both in Estonia and abroad. And although many doctoral students at our institute have been involved in foreign projects, it is not because the Baltic Sea is a boring study field. A smaller body of water is easier to explore, moreover, local research results can be also used in similar places and situations elsewhere in the world. So when our researchers attend large international conferences, there is always great interest in the presentations of Estonian marine scientists, ” concludes Urmas Lips.

TalTech's Institute of Geology and Institute of Marine Systems are members of the Faculty of Science which combines science, engineering and IT studies. Graduates of the bachelor's degree program "Earth Systems, Climate and Technologies" i can become green innovation and crustal engineers, climate scientists, marine scientists, geologists, or data analysts.

Further information:
TalTech Institute of Geology / Institute of Marine Systems
+372 53003098