Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer University of Samothraki 2016: Snapshots

An Experience in Transdisciplinarity...on Samothraki
End of July 2016

This mid-July HCMR participated and co-organized the third university summer school in Samothraki. Two different courses where taught. Ours, Course A, promoted aquatic ecology and social ecology and was supported by Professors from Austrian, Canadian, German, Spanish and Greek Universities. The course was designed as a 2-week excursion to Samothraki with the aim to learn and apply ecology and social ecology approaches in a local island setting we know well. The effort aimed at supporting current research and building synergy with the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and protected area design process. The course gave students the opportunity to engage in real-life research actions and utilize their scientific training to support specific conservation-relevant investigations. Some of these investigations have been ongoing during the last decade or longer. This provided students with the experience of participating in a transdisciplinary research process, being exposed to a search for solutions for natural history interpretation, sustainability and development challenges, and learning to interact with stakeholders in a culturally challenging environment.

Course A hosted 25 students and several experienced professors and tutors. Course B focused on the biosphere reserve designation management and related issues and had about 30 students and some distinguished teachers as well. Organizing and undertaking this was a challenge and a great learning experience for the organizers and teaching staff as well. 

Here I share some raw thoughts about the experience from my personal experience. The snapshots that follow do not cover all activities and sub-project works and do not do justice to the breadth and richness of the two courses.

Some thoughts:

- I was really impressed with the high level of academic excellence, professionalism and integrity of the professors and supportive staff. Having worked in study abroad programs for several years and having done a great deal of natural history teaching and eco-guiding I found this assemblage of professionals to be of very high caliber. This produced a great teaching environment and a wonderful collaboration.

- The program had a high degree of flexibility and recreation. Although our course was ambitious: 8 modules with specific research sub-project actions - this was done at varied and shifting pace with fairly relaxed breaks for all to enjoy. In July, the island is a mecca for Greek youth who come here to camp, dance, and party. So this necessarily becomes part of the activity. It is possible to combine both work and play.

- Samothraki is well suited for a Summer University enterprise. Within the span of one small island we did everything from technical counting of goats, overgrazing assessments, landscape quality research, waste/garbage research, stream ecology,  water management studies, marine biology, natural history walking, riparian surveys and various interdisciplinary cultural approaches as well. Students were really motivated to research specific aspects and these were all presented in excellent PPT presentations on the final day. 

-Samothraki Camp at Therma and the HATHEY organization was really excellent in providing support and the central geographical situation was excellent. Under huge Oriental Planes and next to a wonderful cobble beach the camp is an excellent place to meet people, relax, discuss, and work on dead-line driven research presentations. In my experience of travelling in the Greek islands for three decades now I know of no other situation which could suit a summer university housing facility better. 

-The local government was very supportive and a small cadre of local and expat professionals and nature-lovers were very supportive. (And they have been during the last few years during our academic developments on the island). On Wednesday 20/7 a selection of our scientists presented some of our findings at the cultural centre at Chora (Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Michael Skoulos, Panos Petridis, Nikos Skoulikidis and myself). This "communication event" in an open public meeting was a good thing (and proves a deep connection to the local government and the Mayor's support for a "protected area" on the island). 

- The success of this activity is largely based on the many years of work and research done by Marina Fischer-Kowalski's team and the grounding given by Nikos Skoulikidis as well. Both of them have spent over 20 years visiting the island and this shows. This kind of ground-work lays the foundations for a successful academic organization. 

Guided by Prof. Michael Skoulos and friends in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.

Meander and Oleander from the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.
Prof. Michael Skoulos interprets an ancient column in the Course B field trip.

Discussing river ecology at the Fonias Stream with Course B.

Biodiversity everywhere: A Grass Snake Natrix natrix at Fonias.

Course B breaks for a swim at Fonias stream.
Vassiliki contributed through her PhD protocol in landscape assessment - here at the school house in Therma.

Fantastic for vegetation studies: Dunes with Vitex agnus-castus  and Oak-Terabinth woodland at Pachia Ammos. 
Prof. Panayotis Dimopoulos of University of Patras and Course A students deep in landscape work at Panayia Krimniotissa.
Vassiliki, Selim, Hakan and Elias assessing inspiring landscapes - on road to Kipos.

A gathering of 16 scientists and supporting staff discussing the drafting of a conference statement at the modern conference facility of the Phidelio Cultural Center.
Professor Marina Fischer-Kowalski (at R) discusses grazing issues with Tamara and Yorgos at the school house.
Valonia Oak dehesa-like stands in the grain-fields on the western part of the Island.

The western part of the island has a water stress problem: the proposal for a dam at Ksirpotamos may not solve it. 
Prof. Nuria Bonada talking on Mediterranean streams: a global synthesis. 
The landscape of the village of Lakoma: Vassiliki and field team.
Maria Salomidi, expert marine biologist from HCMR teaches in the small crowded schoolhouse.

Cinematographer Armin of the documentary production team and organizing supporters: Panos Petridis, Angelos Varvarousis, Nikos Skoulikidis and Professor Ierotheos Zacharias at the school house in Therma.
On the tourist ship "Theodora". Round-island tour: rounding the southwestern cape with a view towards Pachia Ammos.
The lush and verdant north coast near the Therma campsite.

The unique cobble spit of Agios Andreas, westernmost point on the island.
One of the Eastern Med's rarest seabirds, the Audouin's Gull. Singles seen at least at five locations along coast. 

Scholars, mentors, friends: Nikos Skoulikidis and Klement Tockner.
The Theodora landing at the desolate Katarti Beach on the southern coast of the island.
Entering the small bay of Katarti Beach. Note sheet erosion and severe overgrazing above coast.

The Theodora landing at Katarti Beach on the southern coast of the island.

Amazing view of Vatos river-mouth on cliff-path in sothern part of island.

The amazing cliff-walk from Pachia Ammos to Vatos (I walked it on my own...this is not for the faint-hearted - and a foolish act when hiked alone...). 
Good friends in the Vatos river bed: Professor Simron Singh at L.
One of the most threatened landscapes on the island: Pachia Ammos.
Tourism venture half-built at Pachia Ammos.  Could this be the beginnig of the end of wilderness?
Harvest of Terebinths and Pubescent Oaks at Pachia Ammos: is it sustainable?
The island's most threatened wetland: Agios Nikolaos Lagoon (next to Agios Andreas lagoon) near Kamariotissa.
On of the island's 20+ important wetlands: Vdelolimni on the north coast.
Amazing Pubescent Oak wood at Vdelolimni... but no regeneration due to livestock overgrazing.

Sunset with sea-side Alders at Vdelolimni wetland.
Samothraki has dual conservation designation within the EU Natura 2000 protected area network (reflecting both its value for natural habitat types and fauna and its birdlife). In the coming years we hope this designation will mature to a full-fledged protected area enacted by the Greek State. This will happen after the completion of a Special Environmental Study and Management Plan for the island's protected area. Of course the island is now still vulnerable to various ideas for development projects (ranging from a water abstraction zombie project at Ksiropotamos to three wind-park proposals in the mountains). Scientific research may help Samothraki, its magnetic nature and wonderful cultural fabric.