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Interview to Jan H. Stel, Professor at International Center for integrated assessment and sustainable development

Jan H. Stel joined ICIS in 2000 as professor in Ocean Space and Human Activity. His current research is focussing at integrated assessment of complex societal issues, ocean governance, sustainable use of the Exclusive Economic Zone, human activities in the coastal area and capacity building mechanism.


Q: Thank you professor Stel for your time, firstly, tell us a bit about the type of work you do. Could you give us your background and your activities in your organization?

I am trained as a paleontologist in the Netherlands, and did my thesis on the paleobiology of some 400 million years old reefs in the Baltic. Next I became a science manager for oceanographic research for most of my career. Since 2000, I became a half time professor in ‘Ocean Space and Human Activity’ at the University of Maastricht.

As a science manager, I organized the Second Dutch-Indonesian Snellius Expedition in the late eighties and the Dutch Indian Ocean Expedition in the early nineties. Both expeditions were embedded in a five year program of collaboration and capacity building. Finally I developed the Dutch Antarctic research program, and was one of the founding members of the DROMLAN air network in 2002, linking Cape Town, with the Antarctic. At the European level I created around 1985, a European consortium that still is participating in the Ocean Drilling Program. At the global and regional level I was involved in the early development of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), founder of a series of regional GOOS bodies on behalf of the IOC, and strongly involved in EuroGOOS.

Q: What kind of fields are you personally involved in or focused on now?

In Maastricht, I was part of the International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS). In the beginning the institute was led by Jan Rotmans (, and had a focus on integrated assessment as well as transition management. Later its focus changed towards sustainability. When I came to ICIS in 2000, I hoped to be able to link ocean sciences with social sciences in order to address the interactions between human activities and the environment of which we are just a minor part. This should be done in an integrated way, from a system science approach, and taking the ocean as a starting point. For this, I re-introduced the 4D notion of ocean space. Ocean literacy is another issue that I am currently dealing with. I am a popular science writer for some 35 years, and ‘Horizon 2020’ is finally offering the urgently needed opportunities in this.

Q: How important are earth observation satellites to the work that you are doing?

Answering this question is a matter of perspective. From a global perspective, earth observations are vital for our understanding of ocean space. In coastal areas and the Exclusive Economic Zones, earth observations form the backbone of large variety of industries. Yet, for exploring ocean space as such, observations by satellites provide, at best, just half of the observing system we need. Here underwater drones etc. are taking over. But these data should, of course, be integrated with the ones from the satellites.

Political Agenda:

Q: The European Commission has recently announced that it has “approved a fund of approximately €3.8 billion to send six satellites into space to monitor the impacts of climate change.”…How important do you consider this programme and its potential impacts on political decisions?

From an ocean space perspective, I have mixed feeling about this. When I was involved in GMES and EuroGOOS I noticed that the (outer) space lobby was well organized and strong. On the other hand the ocean science lobby was and still is, weak. As a consequence most funding and new opportunities go to the space sector. ESA’s newly funded missions – the ‘sentinels’ – to which you are referring, are an excellent example of the strong position of this organization and it industrial allies. But, small industries often being the catalysts of innovation hardly benefit from it. This does, however, not at all mean that the ‘sentinels’ are not needed. They form a smart “bridge” between national and European level investments to underpin Copernicus, and to monitor the polluting effects of human activities. Although the ocean space component is more or less lacking, it will influence future EU policy making.

Q: Will the implementation of Copernicus help strengthen the political commitment towards action linked to climate change?

Political commitments mostly are rather transitory. Copernicus has a focus on environmental monitoring. Its scope should thus be broader that just climate change. The climate change community is, however, becoming an important and, especially in the media, popular force. And that’s good as we really have to change our attitude. With this I mean that the present and continuously increasing scale and magnitude of human activities are indeed a threat for the Earth System, and by that for mankind and its human activities. As Copernicus will deliver more information about environmental change and climate change, I assume that the political commitment to do something about it will indeed increase. The problem is, however, what will we do? Will there be a focus on new technology or will sustainability of human activities be the focus? In this context I am afraid that the widely advocated notion of the Anthropocene, which I consider as a misleading and potentially treacherously, will lead to technological ‘solutions’. With the Anthropocene we are moving towards thin ice.

Q: How important is the role played by GOOS? Will the suppression of the I-GOOS panel strengthen or weaken the actions taken by the group?

With the IOC one should watch for too much bureaucracy. I remember that in the early phases GOOS was functioning rather well. I think that deleting I-GOOS from the management structure is a good idea. It might help to generate more support as well as to increase the needed capacity building and outreach aspects of the program.
Coming back to GOOS, I think it is one of the most important initiatives of the IOC since the late eighties. Its implementation is a slow and tedious process. But it is moving forwards. Last year some 65% of GOOS was established, whereas initiatives such as Argo are a major success. They are opening up real ocean space information, which we urgently need.

Q: How does GOOS fit with GEO/GEOSS? Are the two organisations complementary? Do you consider that steps could be taken to improve their co-operation?

GEO is a US led initiative that matured after the Johannesburg Summit in 2002. At the moment one is discussing its continuation and funding until 2025. It is all about the global coordination of earth observations. As such it was and is an interesting initiative. GOOS, which developed after Rio 1992, is the ocean (space) component of it.


Q: What role do you perceive that the private sector plays in monitoring environmental and climate change and can more be done to make it more effective?

In Europe this has been a difficult issue. For a long time EuroGOOS did not want to work together with the industry at all. Even in GMES it was not easy for the industry to participate as well as in most of the EU Framework programs. But with Copernicus downstream activities have finally become much more important. I think that the industry should participate fully within Copernicus. Moreover, it should also participate in future comparable programs to explore and exploit ocean space. There is a shared responsibility and opportunity. A good example how this can work was the marine component of EUREKA. Within EUROMAR, for which I organized the first EUROMAR Market in 1988, a large number of innovative products were developed.

Q: What is your view of the outlook for the value adding services sector? What factors are most important to this industry?

Real access to markets, fair competition with public institutions and seed money for innovation.

Q: How can collaboration between government and the private sector be improved?

For that there is a rather straightforward answer: one needs funding, seed funding. Again I refer to my experience with EUROMAR. Based on this, I suggest the availability of focused funding at the EU level.

Q: EARSC has recently supported the policy to make data from Copernicus Sentinel satellites free and open. However, some private companies selling data from their own satellites have been and are uncomfortable with this policy. In consequence it is clear that the boundary between what is done by government (through public agencies) and by industry (through private investment) needs to be more clearly defined ie who should do what in the future. This is necessary in order that private funds can be deployed to invest not just in new satellite systems but equally into new VA products and services. In your experience is this also important when it comes to developing monitoring systems for environmental and climate change?

Well, I am a little bit puzzled by the attitude of the industry you are mentioning. I would expect the industry to be more daring and identifying its own markets. On the other hand the ‘protection’ of downstream activities of public agencies is indeed a reason for concern. My impression is that, in Europe, governments, and as a consequence the EU, sometimes sets double standards in these situations. That is ‘killing’ for small, innovative companies in these fields. This should be stopped.
In contrast, the situation in the US has always been open, and has led to a large innovative downstream business sector.


Q: Climate change missions will contribute to the collection of key data sets? What ground-breaking innovations do you consider the upcoming missions will bring to this field?

The Sentinal-1 missions for instance will give continuity in SAR data, and as such build on the highly successful ERS-1 and 2, Envisat, and Radarsat missions. The June 2013 Special Issue of Oceanography, gives an impressive overview of the possibilities of ocean remote sensing with SAR. The polar orbiting Sentinel-1 is highly important in a time when there are a lot of uncertainties how global warming will affect the Arctic and North Atlantic. That there will be large (system) changes goes without saying. As a consequence this capability will assist human activities in a time of transition. I expect that the emphasis of the market will be on exploration activities at higher latitudes.

Q: Environmental satellite missions will gather data from not so easily accessible areas, such as deserts and oceans. Do you consider that such missions can play a role linked to increasing economic activity?

Certainly. For instance, in relation to the opening of the Arctic. One should, however, realize that most of these activities are new human activities in a part of ocean space we hardly know. So, they are at least risky from a societal point of view. Again we are exploiting, as we did after James Cook’s ocean exploration in the late 18th century, an environment we hardly know. As a consequence, I am afraid, that again humans will pay price for that. It is the same with near future deep ocean space exploitation of untapped resources such as deep sea mining in Exclusive Economic Zones. I am not saying that we should not do this. I am just saying one should better know what we are doing. And that means a large coordinated investment in the exploration of ocean space, as we do now for outer space. It is bizarre. We are investing so much money in the exploration of Mars, while we ‘forget’ to invest in Earth’s ocean space. And here we live! Something must be wrong with our species. I am convinced that if we would only invest just ten percent of these funds in ocean space exploration, the economic return would be a many fold of the one we are now getting from outer space exploration.

Q: What dedicated missions do you consider it important to develop, eg for carbon-monitoring, for atmosphere or for water etc?

I am afraid your readership will not like this. But I would suggest to place these missions on hold for some time. I suggest that one should invest in ocean space exploration and its supporting international infrastructure. By this our insights in the ocean and earth systems will increase rapidly, and help us to focus. Moreover, we have to integrate the social sciences in future ocean research.

In the dedicated missions you mentioned in your question, the link with societal needs and possible downstream services is easily understood. In what I am proposing this link is more difficult to see. The main reason is that research and monitoring of the inner ocean space is just at its infancy; but it is starting. Yet, one could imagine that a better understanding and monitoring of human activity related ‘hotspots’, like the development of dead zones, algal blooms and may be fishery resources in 4D, will lead to a new type of downstream products. It should also be stressed that for this the present earth observations should be coupled with the information from within ocean space. I think that even such an efficient coupling will lead to new insights and, as a consequence, products.

Q: In recent years, we have heard many warnings about global-scale water shortages, but at the same time we have seen an increase in the number of floods and other water-related disasters around the world. What could an EO mission will be able to achieve in relation to such climate change?

Not much, I think. Better monitoring might lead to being prepared better. But it does not solve the problem. We are the problem, by the way. So again we need new approaches to tackle this issue.


Q: What do you consider to be the three most important steps to take to protect the human population against the effects of climate change and what will be the key contributions made by satellite technology to each of these?

My problem with this question is that climate change is phrased in such a way that it is something threatening for us. But, who caused the problem? We did! Through our human activities! For me, climate change is an environmental or earth system expression of global scale pollution by human activities. Maybe, our population is too large. I do not know. But history shows us that, as in the 14th century in Europe, when natural climate change was taking place, the system takes care of that.

But I am afraid that the Anthropocene believers will advocate technological solutions for problems of which we the uncertainties do not know well, and that politicians just will go for it. In my opinion we really should live in balance with nature, know our place as just one, be it rather creative species within it, and care more for the environment we are part of.

Coming back to your question, I think that satellite technology is crucial to assist in a transition towards sustainability of society. To be able to access this process one certainly needs environmental information that satellite technology allows for.