Helmholtz Association
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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

ZoomLena River Delta - Landsat 2000 05, Image: Alfred-Wegener-Institut
Lena River Delta - Landsat 2000 05, Image: 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.

Simulating the Future

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The facility, covering an area of almost seven hectares (ten football fields),
contains ten experimental fields with five plots each. The plots can be planted with various species and subjected to the different climatic onditions predicted for central Germany. Image: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ

What will climate change bring? Scientists at the Global Change Experimental Facility (GCEF) are attempting to answer this question. The research station is home to one of the largest long-term experiments of its kind in the world, set to run for at least 15 years. The findings will help environmentalists, conservationists and farmers to better adapt to climate change. Scientists expect that temperatures will be hotter in central Germany by the end of the century and that there will also be less r ainfall, especially in the summer months. But what do these changes mean for ecological processes? In order to accurately simulate such scenarios, researchers covered normal agricultural fields in Bad Lauchstädt (Halle/Saale) with steel frames fitted with closable roofs and side walls. As in a greenhouse, temperatures inside these enclosures can be increased by up to three degrees at night and the first ground frost can be delayed by several weeks. Researchers can also keep rain off the fields or add additional water via a sprinkler system.

“The GCEF is certainly not the first experiment to simulate climate change, but it is unique in the sense that it operates on a larger temporal and spatial scale,” says Stefan Klotz, head of the Biocoenology Department at UFZ. Each of the 50 plots measures 16 by 24 metres. For each group of five plots in which climate change is simulated for conventional agriculture, organic farming, intensive grassland farming, extensive grassland farming based on mowing, and extensive grassland farming based on grazing, identical groups have been set up without changed temperatures or precipitation levels for purposes of comparison. Much of the information that the GCEF will supply over the next few years will be measured and processed by a self-organising wireless sensor network developed at UFZ. A kind of WLAN network, this system contains many small stations that will measure the humidity and temperature of both the air and soil, as well as radiation intensity. The components that visitors can see form only part of this state-of-the-art technology, most of which is buried underground or is transmitted as data through the air.


Conversion of Harmful Nitrous Oxide Underestimated

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This robot, operated by KIT researchers, automatically measures nitrous oxide emissions from the soil. Image: E. Díaz-Pines

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

As a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2O) contributes to climate change and damages the ozone layer. The greenhouse effect of an N2O molecule in the atmosphere is about 300 times greater than that of a carbon dioxide molecule. The use of mineral fertilizers is increasing the amount of nitrous oxide in the soil. KIT scientists have now determined that if harmful N2O is reduced to harmless molecular nitrogen (N2), only about onefifth of the nitrous oxide produced is released into the atmosphere.


New Species in the Arctic Ocean

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A sample from the specimen container: a female Atlantic amphipod with bulging brood pouch. Image: A. Kraft/AWI

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

Over the last few years, amphipods from the North Atlantic have been reproducing in the Arctic Ocean. Researchers at the long-term HAUSGARTEN observatory in the Fram Strait have found evidence of this species’ migration. Ten years ago, it was above all cold-loving amphipods from the Arctic that were caught in their sediment traps. Then, in 2005, AWI researchers discovered the first specimens of the Atlantic species Themisto compressa. The animals had reached the Fram Strait from the Atlantic waters in the south, which were warming, and proved to be highly adaptable.


Series of Foreshocks Controls Course of Earthquake

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The Iquique earthquake broke a central piece of the seismic gap that had existed for over 130 years. Green symbols show the stations of the
Integrated Plate Boundary Observatory Chile; green arrows indicate measured surface displacement. Image: B. Schurr/GFZ

Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences

A protracted series of foreshocks played a major role in steering the development of the rupture process during the major earthquake that struck Iquique in northern Chile in April 2014. The series of foreshocks occurred over a nine-month period and culminated in a magnitude 6.7 event two weeks before the magnitude 8.1 main quake. An international research team led by GFZ scientists determined that the Iquique earthquake occurred in the area of the last seismic gap before the Chilean coast. In several clusters, the foreshocks first broke the edge of the central section that then was ruptured by the main quake.


Climate Chance Affects the Allergenic Potential of Pollen

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Ragweed is the bane of allergy sufferers. Image: U. Frank/Helmholtz Zentrum München

Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health

Ragweed is a plant species whose pollen can cause particularly severe allergic reactions and asthma. Scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum München are studying how climate change affects the allergenicity of plants. They have already found elevated stress levels in plants exposed to increased amounts of ozone, which may result in more aggressive pollen, even if the number and size of pollen grains remain the same. The researchers also intend to take a closer look at the effects of drought as well as the influences of higher levels of CO2, NO2, particulate matter and UV-B radiation.


Shipping Emissions on the North Sea

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Simulation of the supply routes to hydrothermal vents on mid-ocean ridges. The arrows indicate the direction in which the tectonic plates are moving. Image: J. Hasenclever/GEOMAR

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

Ships release large quantities of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and aerosol particles. At Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, researchers led by Volker Matthias are using a chemistry transport model to investigate the effects of shipping emissions on air quality in the North Sea area. They have calculated current emissions on the basis of ship movement data. Their simulations show that ships make a significant contribution to the concentration of pollutants at the coast and far inland. By 2030, nitrogen oxides emitted by ships could increase by 25 per cent.

How Productive Are Deep-Sear Ore Factories?

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Simulation of the supply routes to hydrothermal vents on mid-ocean idges. The arrows indicate the direction in which the tectonic plates are moving. Image: J. Hasenclever/GEOMAR

GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

Hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, also called black smokers, are fascinating geological formations. They are home to unique ecosystems and have the potential to supply raw materials in the future. They are driven by volcanic “power plants” in the ocean floor and release an enormous amount of energy. With the help of computer simulations, GEOMAR researchers have now succeeded in understanding the underground supply routes leading to black smokers.

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)


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

03.08.2015