Otmar D. Wiestler
“Increasing numbers of forest fires in Brandenburg, severe storms in Southern Germany, melting ice in the Arctic – we are seeing the catastrophic impacts of climate change on a global scale.”
Since the beginning of the industrial era, the average global temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Celsius. How will the climate continue to develop? What are the ramifications? Can we significantly reduce greenhouse gases and thus halt global warming? Science is faced with these and many other questions. As part of the Helmholtz Climate Initiative, scientists will advance their climate research in completely new research projects and network with new contacts to perform comprehensive research on climate change. We have compiled information and answers on our topic page.
Researchers at numerous Helmholtz Centers are working to gain a better, more detailed understanding of climate change. They are using this understanding to derive recommendations on how to slow down climate change or mitigate its consequences.
The research takes into account the Earth system as a whole and its complex interactions and processes. Helmholtz research focuses on five different fields represented by their respective research programs and each has its own significance for the global climate. For instance, scientists make a distinction between “blue” and “white” oceans, i.e. the areas around the poles and the warmer latitudes where different observation systems are used. The focus is also on other research questions. Special attention will once again be given to the coasts and to developments on the Earth’s surface, on land, and in the atmosphere. In addition, the researchers partake in interdisciplinary collaborations as well as in projects beyond the Helmholtz Centers and other institutions.
The Helmholtz Climate Initiative will focus on the two key areas of “Reducing Emissions” and “Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change”. Helmholtz scientists will advance their climate research in completely new research projects. They will place greater emphasis on networking in order to systemically research climate change. Only Helmholtz, Germany's largest research organization, can achieve such a feat. Our six research fields will carry out interdisciplinary work within the Climate Initiative to find systemic solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time facing society. This is because climate change has many causes and affects us in many areas of life. Collaboration is needed at the interface between many research fields to investigate the effects of climate change and develop solution models. Changing climatic conditions affect areas such as our health, new energy sources are needed, our mobility and agriculture must change, and much more. The Helmholtz Climate Initiative was launched on July 1, 2019.
“National and international networks have increased significantly over the past 20 years and have exponentially increased our already extensive expertise,” says Dr. Klaus Grosfeld, climate researcher at AWI and Managing Director of the Helmholtz Network “Regional Climate Change” (REKLIM). The aim of REKLIM is to monitor and forecast development on a regional scale. It will also take the interactions between atmosphere, ocean, and land surfaces into consideration. “Such models combined with corresponding observations and data evaluation techniques allow us to assess regional climate changes in the past, present, and future,” says Grosfeld. The first step is to identify the causes affecting the climate: at the global, regional, and local levels – natural or man-made. Their impacts on the climate are investigated in the second step. “REKLIM is consistent with the overall strategy of the Helmholtz Association in that it serves a dual purpose,” explains Grosfeld. “For one, we continue to develop the most pressing scientific issues and we also make conclusive findings available for socioeconomic and political decision-making processes.”
Researchers’ findings at Helmholtz Centers have also played a relevant role in organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Over the past 16 years, the IPCC has made statements about future climate changes in its Assessment Reports (AR) compiled by hundreds of researchers worldwide. These statements are an important foundation for the political and scientific discussions on global warming. Prof. Dr. Hans-Otto Pörtner of AWI was one of the coordinating lead authors of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report adopted in Yokohama in 2014.
The IPCC adopted a special report in October 2018. This report describes the consequences of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius and the extent to which we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to still achieve the 1.5-degree target. The special report will play a major role in the negotiations in Katowice. It should be noted that, in preparing the report, the IPCC has honored a request made by the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the end of 2015 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. The Paris Agreement states among other things that global warming is to be limited to well below 2°C and to as low as 1.5°C if possible. The special report is scheduled to be ready by the time the 24th COP is held in Katowice, Poland, and will be one of the bases for discussion in the negotiations there. The only German coordinating lead author of the report is Prof. Dr. Daniela Jacob, Director of the Climate Service Center Germany, GERICS, a platform of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.
TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories) spans an Earth observation network throughout Germany, extending from the North German Plain to the Bavarian Alps. Six Helmholtz Centers participate in this large-scale project, the aim of which is to catalog the long-term effects of global change on various environmental systems. These include but are not limited to: changes in climatic conditions, changes in land use, growth and decline of urban systems. The scientists are also developing concepts to counteract the negative effects of changing environmental conditions as early as possible. “The TERENO observatories are operated from a long-term perspective to identify and quantify long-term trends in the development of the environment,” explains Steffen Zacharias, soil hydrologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and coordinator of the TERENO observatory Harz/Mitteldeutsches Tiefland. “TERENO actively and sustainably participates in various other national, European, and global environmental research networking activities.”
In 2009, the German Federal Government established the Climate Service Center Germany (GERICS) at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht – Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG) as part of the High-Tech Strategy for Climate Protection. GERICS has been an independent scientific organizational unit of the HZG since June 2014. The scientists, economists, humanists, and architects answer specific questions from politics, management, and companies.
The scientists create fact sheets and modular “advisory toolkits” for this purpose. The fact sheets provide standardized and condensed information on climate and climate change for countries, regions, climate zones, and production sites. Adaptation to climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions play an equally important role in the “advisory toolkits”. The “Adaptation toolkit for cities”, for example, provides specific climate information, guidance in individual areas such as “urban green”, and recommendations for action. An “Adaptation toolkit for companies” will also be developed based on the same modular concept.
The Helmholtz Association is establishing a nationwide network of four regional climate offices. These pool and communicate research results on regional climate change. Furthermore, they ascertain the information needs of different stakeholders, which are then to be integrated into the research programs. The idea behind it is that farmers, coastal engineers, urban planners, and even decision-makers from politics and business need first-hand information in order to prepare for climate change in their region.
The Southern German Climate Office at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) offers expertise in regional climate modeling and extreme events such as heavy precipitation and flooding.
The Climate Office for Central Germany at the Leipzig Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) offers information on the effects of climate change on the environment, land use, and society as well as on adaptation strategies.
The North German Climate Office at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, Centre for Materials and Coastal Research focuses on the research fields of storms, storm surges, and swells, as well as the coastal climate in Northern Germany.
The Climate Office for Polar Regions and Sea Level Rise at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) is the contact for questions on climate change in polar regions and sea level rise.
Climate research means working with a wealth of data. For 30 years, the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ) in Hamburg has been providing computing power for climate and Earth system research. In order for DKRZ and its users to remain internationally competitive, its high-performance computer must be periodically refurbished. On October 24th, the Helmholtz Association, the Max Planck Society, and the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg signed a contract for the long-term financing of the high-performance computer.
Until now, funding for the new high-performance computer has been repeatedly renegotiated. Effective immediately, the shareholders of the German Climate Computing Center will jointly assume responsibility for keeping the high-performance computer at the DKRZ up to date. In the future, the Helmholtz Association will contribute 45 percent to the financing, the Max Planck Society will contribute 40 percent, and the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg 15 percent. As per the agreement, the DKRZ’s computing infrastructure will be rebuilt for the first time in 2020 and then at intervals of usually five years. A total investment of 45 million euros will be required for the planned acquisition of the supercomputer.
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.