Helmholtz Association

Research Field Earth and Environment

Our goal is to understand the System Earth to ensure that our home planet remains ecologically stable and the climate equilibrium is not knocked out of balance. Helmholtz researchers search for sustainable solutions for the co-existence of industrial society and the natural environment.

Goals and Roles

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Lena River Delta - Landsat 2000 05, Bild: Alfred-Wegener-Institut

It focuses on expanding and interconnecting long-term observation systems, improving predictions and applying results within society. One special goal is to formulate scientifically based policy recommendations on how the Earth’s resources can be used in a sustainable fashion without destroying the foundations of life. For example, REKLIM, a Helmholtz climate initiative, brings together the expertise of nine Helmholtz centres in an effort to improve regional and global climate models. In the Water Science Alliance, Helmholtz experts work together with universities and other partners to investigate the impact of global change on water resources. An important aim is to establish and operate infrastructure and facilities such as the HALO research aircraft and the TERENO network. This latter project involves the construction of terrestrial observatories in four selected regions in Germany. Within the scope of the COSYNA project, a longterm observation system will be created for the German North Sea and later extended to Arctic coastal waters.

Outlook

To meet the challenges, the research field Earth and Environment will continue to pool the capacities of the participating centres within shared research portfolios. This strategy will lead to new alliances and facilitate the expansion of Earth observation and knowledge systems as well as integrated modelling approaches. The interdisciplinary portfolio project “Earth System Knowledge Platform – Observation, Information and Transfer” will integrate the knowledge acquired by all the centres in this research field and by their partners. It aims to help society to cope with the complex challenges brought about by changes in the Earth system. The incorporation of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel into the Helmholtz Association has significantly expanded its research spectrum.

Research Programmes


Geosystem

This programme analyses processes in the geosphere and their interaction with the hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere.

More details about Research Programme Geosystem


Marine, Coastal and Polar Systems Programme

This programme concentrates on changes in the Arctic and Antarctic, their interaction with the global climate and polar ecosystems, vulnerable coasts and shelf seas and the polar perspective of Earth system analysis.

More details about Research Programme Marine, Coastal and Polar Systems


Oceans

This interdisciplinary programme examines the physical, chemical, biological and geological processes in oceans as well as the interactions between these processes and both the ocean floor and the atmosphere.

More details about Research Programme Oceans


Atmosphere and Climate Programme

The goal of this programme is to better understand the function of the atmosphere within the climate system. Topics are Clouds and Weather Research, Land Surface Processes, Tropospheric Trace Gases and Chemical Processes and  the Upper Troposphere and Middle Atmosphere.

More details about Research Programme Atmosphere and Climate


Terrestrial Environment Programme

The goal of this programme is to preserve the natural foundations of human life and health. It addresses the effects of global  change and climate change on terrestrial environmental systems.

More details about Research Programme Terrestrial Environment

The programmes in the funding period 2014-2018

Eight Helmholtz centres currently participate in the research field Earth and Environment: the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), the Forschungszentrum Jülich, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (since 2012), the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG), the Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Research is currently being conducted in five programmes:

Research Programmes


Geosystem

This programme analyses processes in the geosphere and their interaction with the hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere.

More details about Research Programme Geosystem


Marine, Coastal and Polar Systems Programme

This programme concentrates on changes in the Arctic and Antarctic, their interaction with the global climate and polar ecosystems, vulnerable coasts and shelf seas and the polar perspective of Earth system analysis.

More details about Research Programme Marine, Coastal and Polar Systems


Oceans

This interdisciplinary programme examines the physical, chemical, biological and geological processes in oceans as well as the interactions between these processes and both the ocean floor and the atmosphere.

More details about Research Programme Oceans


Atmosphere and Climate Programme

The goal of this programme is to better understand the function of the atmosphere within the climate system. Topics are Clouds and Weather Research, Land Surface Processes, Tropospheric Trace Gases and Chemical Processes and  the Upper Troposphere and Middle Atmosphere.

More details about Research Programme Atmosphere and Climate


Terrestrial Environment Programme

The goal of this programme is to preserve the natural foundations of human life and health. It addresses the effects of global  change and climate change on terrestrial environmental systems.

More details about Research Programme Terrestrial Environment

Insights into Research Field Earth and Environment

Here, we present projects currently being carried out by scientists at the Helmholtz Centres.

Adapting to climate change in the ocean

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Kai T. Lohbeck examining a culture of Emiliania huxleyi in a bottle in the GEOMAR lab. Image: Maike Nicolai/GEOMAR

GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

The most important unicellular calcifying alga in the world, Emiliania huxleyi, is capable of simultaneously adapting to the acidification of the oceans and rising water temperatures. Scientists from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Thünen Institute of Sea Fisheries have demonstrated its adaptive capability in an unprecedented evolution experiment. With their study the researchers have disproved the widespread assumption that evolutionary adaptations to both these aspects of climate change interfere with each other. “Even though the experiment was conducted under laboratory conditions, it clearly showed the great adaptive potential of Emiliania huxleyi,” says Lothar Schlüter, the study’s first author. “Proof has been provided. Forecasts about the oceans of the future must definitely consider such adaptive changes.” For their experiments the scientists used and propagated a single cell of Emiliania huxleyi from the Raunefjord in Norway. Over the course of a year (corresponding to around 460 algae generations), five cultures were exposed to a variety of temperatures and carbon dioxide conditions. At high water temperatures, the adapted populations grew significantly faster than the non-adapted ones, regardless of the water’s carbon dioxide content. In a sub-experiment, the researchers were surprised to find that the cultures which had been simultaneously exposed to the highest CO2 value and the highest temperatures for one year were also the quickest to adapt when temperatures were raised again.

Additional studies are underway. “In our labs we are now conducting the longest-running and most complex experiment on this question in the world,” says Thorsten Reusch, head of Marine Ecology at GEOMAR. The r esults will be integrated into biogeochemical models for calculating the future productivity of oceans and the limits of carbon storage. The insights gained into evolutionary adaptation have also been incorporated into a study of future phytoplankton species shifts


Change in the dead sea valley

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

The water level of the Dead Sea has been falling dramatically for decades. Researchers involved in the HEADS measurement campaign assess the role played by evaporation, the vapour level, and local wind systems. They have found that water evaporation in the Dead Sea Valley varies seasonally and in response to meteorological conditions. The measurement campaign is part of “DESERVE – Dead Sea Research Venue”, a Helmholtz virtual institute that is coordinated by KIT and brings together scientists from Germany, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.


Shrinking glaciers in greenland and antarctica

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Changes in the elevation of the Greenland ice sheet from January 2011 to
January 2014; red: glaciers that have lost volume, blue: glaciers that have grown. Map: Helm et al.

Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI)

In order to evaluate the extent of climate change in the polar regions, scientists require reliable data, including measurements of glacial ice loss. With the help of the ESA satellite CryoSat-2, glaciologists from the Alfred Wegener Institute have created the first comprehensive elevation maps of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Using these maps, they have demonstrated that the ice sheets in both regions are shrinking at a record pace, losing approx. 500 cubic kilometres of ice per year. This corresponds to a layer of ice around 600 metres thick covering the entire area of Hamburg.


Publication on climate change in the baltic region

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Marcus Reckermann, head of the International Baltic Earth Secretariat at HZG. Image: HZG

Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG)

In April 2015, the regional climate report “Second Assessment of Climate Change for the Baltic Sea Basin” was published in open access form. The report was coordinated by the HZG’s International Baltic Earth Secretariat, and 141 authors from twelve countries contributed. In 25 chapters it discusses changes since the last ice age with a focus on the past 200 years, projections up to 2100 and potential impacts on nature. The publication elucidates not only socioeconomic factors such as land use, agriculture and cities, but also the causes of regional climate change.


The large wheat genome: Key for our future

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Researchers at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have deciphered the large genome of bread wheat. Image: Irina Tischenko/Fotolia

Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health

Wheat is one of the most widely planted crops in the world. Researchers led by Klaus Mayer at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have now gained important new insight into the grain’s genetic makeup. The team learned that the wheat genome is five times larger than the human genome. One peculiarity: it is polyploid containing three distinct sub-genomes. The scientists were able to decode these sub-genomes and acquire a new understanding of their complex interactions. Their findings explain the plant’s great adaptability.


A bacterium that cleans groundwater

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Scientists at UFZ have developed a method for cost-effectively removing chemicals from groundwater. Image: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ

 

At many industrial sites around the world, chemicals such as benzene and methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) contaminate the groundwater. UFZ researchers have now isolated a bacterium called Aquincola tertiaricarbonis that can break down such pollutants. With the help of this bacterium, they have developed an environmentally and economically competitive purification process that is now ready to market. The process is already being used on the site of the large-scale ecological Leuna project, where a facility capable of purifying 500,000 litres of contaminated groundwater each day began operating in 2014.

Initiatives in the Research Field Earth and Environment

In the following, a selection of initiatives in the research field Earth and Environment are presented:

Climate Service Center 2.0

A team of natural scientists, economists, political scientists and communication-specialists are working at the Climate Service Center 2.0. Their tasks are refining the knowledge derived from climate research in a practice-orientated way and conveying the findings to decision-makers in politics, administration, economy and for the broad public.

More details about the Climate Service Center 2.0


European Climate Research Alliance (ECRA)

The European Climate Research Alliance (ECRA) is an association of leading European research institutions in the field of climate research. ECRA has the objective to bring together to expand and to optimize European expertise in climate research by sharing existing national research capacities and infrastructures.

More details about the European Climate Research Alliance (ECRA)


Helmholtz Network REKLIM (Regional Climate Change)

The Earth is currently subject to profound climate change. The observed increase in global air and ocean temperatures, the melting of snow and ice and the rising sea level indicate a significant warming of the Earth in recent decades. However, the impacts of climate change can regionally be highly different. Within the framework of the Helmholtz Network "Regional Climate Change" (REKLIM) nine Research Centres of the Helmholtz Association focus their competences in exploring the regional climate. The networks research activities will help to improve the understanding of regional processes and therefore contribute to optimise mitigation and adaptation strategies.

More details about REKLIM


Regional Climate Offices of the Helmholtz Association

The effects of global climate change on particular regions vary significantly. Farmers, coastal engineers, town planners and other decision makers need first-hand information on regional climate change in order to adapt their region to the effects. The Helmholtz Association has therefore decided to initiate a German network of regional climate offices. Each of the four Regional Helmholtz Climate Offices is focusing on a certain region. We integrate regional climate change information based on latest research projects and make scientific results understandable to the public.

More details about Regional Climate Offices of the Helmholtz Association


TERENO - Terrestrial Environmental Observatories

The infrastructure measure TERENO is an observation platform which combines a variety of terrestrial observatories in selected and for Germany representative regions. The observatories continuously provide spatially and temporally distributed measured long-term data to support the further development and validation of integrated process models of terrestrial systems.

More details about "TERENO - Terrestrial Environmental Observatories"

Contact

Prof. Dr. Peter M. Herzig

Research Field Coordinator Earth and Environment

Director, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel
24148 Kiel

Phone: +49 431 600-2800
Fax: +49 431 600-2805
pherzig(at)geomar.de
http://www.geomar.de


Dr. Cathrin Brüchmann

Research Field Earth and Environment

Helmholtz Association

Phone: +49 30 206329-45
cathrin.bruechmann (at) helmholtz.de


 

"Taking the pulse of the planet"

Brochure of the Helmholtz Earth Observatory Network

 

"Integrated research for adressing global water challanges"

Brochure of the Helmholtz Water Network

28.09.2016