Sunken Cruise Liner's Research Project Gets a New Berth

Lost lab. The Costa Concordia had air pollution-monitoring systems on board.


ISPRA, ITALY—When the Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the Italian island of Giglio on 13 January, more was lost than 32 lives and a luxurious €450 million cruise liner. The sunken ship was also home to €120,000 worth in measurement systems for air pollution, owned by the European Union's Joint Research Centre (JRC). Most of the floating lab could not be salvaged.

Now, JRC technicians have installed a similar but updated system on the Costa Magica, which sails the same route as the disaster ship. The equipment, in operation since Monday, will continuously measure a range of pollutants on its journeys, which take it to Savona, Marseille, Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Catania, and Naples every week.

In 2005, JRC signed a deal with cruise ship line Costa Crociere to have automatic measurements systems installed on the Costa Concordia as well as on two of the company's other ships. For JRC scientists, the cruisers' fixed routes offer an easy way to measure air pollution frequently, says project leader Jens Hjorth of JRC's Institute for Environment and Sustainability, located in this small town on the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore. The shipborne labs measure ozone, “black carbon,” nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide; they also capture wind, temperature, and other meteorological data.

The coastal areas of Barcelona, Genoa, Marseille, and Rome have the highest pollution levels in the Mediterranean; Shipping is a major contributor, along with long-distance road transport. While the loss of the Costa Concordia halted some ongoing studies, it has also led to some innovations, says JRC's Friedrich Lagler, who is in charge of the equipment onboard the Magica. The instruments are more sensitive and better calibrated than those on the Costa Concordia, and while data were previously stored on a laptop, an Internet connection now allows them to be sent straight to the JRC's computers.

In July, the journal Atmospheric Environment published online some of the results from JRC's floating monitoring systems. Data collected on the Costa Pacifica—a sister ship of the Costa Magica—showed that sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels have dropped by an average of 66% in the harbors of Civitavecchia, Savona, and Palma de Mallorca between 2009 and 2010; measurements in the port of Barcelona were inconclusive but additional data suggest SO2 emissions have gone down there as well.

The authors say the drop is the result of a new E.U. directive, which bans ships at berth or at anchor in E.U. harbors from using fuels with a high sulfur content; it took effect in January 2010. SO2 levels did not fall in the harbor of Tunis, a non-E.U. city where the Pacifica also made stops until the Tunisian revolution of 2011.