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International research platform off the coast of Africa

The Ocean Science Center Mindelo (OSCM) is located in the bay of Mindelo, which is regularly visited by German and international research vessels. Photo: Edson Silva Delgado, OSCM

GEOMAR operates a special research station on Cape Verde in cooperation with the Instituto do Mar. The Ocean Science Center Mindelo serves international marine and atmospheric researchers as a base for their studies.

570 kilometers off the coast of West Africa lies Cape Verde with its breathtaking natural beauty. Rich nature and diverse wildlife characterize the ten main islands and several smaller islets. On the island of São Vicente, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, together with the Cape Verdean Instituto do Mar (IMar), has created a unique research platform: The Ocean Science Center Mindelo (OCSM).

"Such excellent conditions for marine research are rare," enthuses GEOMAR expert for marine biogeochemistry Björn Fiedler. "The possibilities for conducting marine research in the tropical northeast Atlantic and in the West African region have been significantly improved with the OCSM. Within a few moments you can reach the open, 3500 meter deep Atlantic Ocean and get straight down to research, that's really great." Together with his colleague Cordula Zenk, Coordinator of the German-Cape Verdean Cooperation, he manages the German activities in the OCSM. Both are on site at least three to four times a year, and Fiedler even spent six months there with his family in the opening year, as well as last winter.

The Cape Verde Islands are located 1,500 kilometers southwest of the Canary Islands and around 600 kilometers west of the coast of Senegal. Graphic C. Kersten/ GEOMAR, Map: GEBCO

Scientific exchange and exciting deep-sea data

With a usable area of more than 1,700 square meters and modern infrastructure, the OSCM in Mindelo has served as a multifunctional base for long-term scientific observations and field research in the tropical northeast Atlantic since its opening in 2017. At the same time, the center also contributes to scientific exchange and networking with and within West Africa and enables the training of students and future scientists in the field of marine sciences.

With regard to the marine ecosystem in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa, research focuses on marine ecology as well as chemical and physical oceanography. "Since 2006, a long-term ocean observation station anchored in the deep Atlantic about 100 kilometers northeast of the island has been continuously providing data on temperature, oxygen and other parameters," explains Fiedler. The data obtained is compared with researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena who are also active on site, and provides deep insights into the changes in the ocean and atmosphere caused by climate change.

An autonomous sailing drone during a mission lasting several months to measure CO2 exchange fluxes between the ocean and atmosphere near the Cape Verde Islands. The mission was jointly supported by the BMBF and the EU project EuroSea. Photo: Martin Visbeck, GEOMAR

Focus on environmental protection and sustainability

As the Cape Verde Islands and the area of the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds them represent a fragile ecosystem, environmental protection and sustainability are important aspects of the activities at OSCM. The large upwelling areas on the eastern edges of the Atlantic and Pacific are among the most biologically productive and species-rich regions and are therefore of the highest ecological and socio-economic importance. Cordula Zenk explains: "This is why we are observing: How much does the ocean in the region lose oxygen at a certain water depth? What impact does this have on the local ecosystems? And above all: What consequences does this have for fisheries and the population?"

Local fisheries are included in a wide range of studies which helps to promote the population's understanding of the marine environment and the effects of climate change on the ocean. "Close contact and exchange with local stakeholders is particularly important to us," emphasizes Zenk. "The ecosystems that are under pressure also provide food for millions of people in West Africa. Most of them live on the coasts and are heavily dependent on fishing and a functioning ecosystem." This is why the socio-economic aspect is always taken into account. "In this respect, the OSCM is much more than a research platform where studies are carried out, data is taken home and findings are published," explains Björn Fiedler. "We also actively support the transfer of scientific findings to stakeholders and decision-makers from business and politics."

Employees of GEOMAR and OSCM jointly train students of the BMBF-funded WASCAL M.Sc. program during the "Floating University" expedition on FS Maria S. Merian. Photo: Sarah Kaehlert, GEOMAR

FUTURO: A major project

One of the major projects for the future is the one-year research campaign "The Future of Tropical Upwelling Regions in the Atlantic Ocean" (FUTURO for short). This major international project aims to investigate how the natural upwelling region in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa, which is extremely important for both West Africa's and Europe's population, will develop in the wake of climate change and how this biologically particularly productive and species-rich region can be protected and managed sustainably. Questions to be investigated include: "How will the coastal upwelling areas change in the future? How will these changes affect the climate and humanity? What type and intensity of use in upwelling areas is possible in the longer term?". Research vessels and autonomous devices will operate in the extended West African coastal upwelling region from 2027 to 2029 and enable such questions to be investigated. Among other things, health and disease processes in the sea, which are fundamental to food security and other important functions of the ocean, will be examined. A particular focus of FUTURO is on active cooperation with West African researchers, interest groups and marine research institutes, as well as the direct transfer of findings and the resulting recommendations for action into local policy.

Observation platforms together with physical and biogeochemical processes and components of the food chain as part of the FUTURO campaign. Illustration: Christoph Kersten/GEOMAR

Björn Fiedler explains the relevance of the project given the special situation of the region: "Three major stress factors come together here for the ocean: Acidification, warming and oxygen loss. These are all processes that often occur separately in many places around the world, but here they are all happening at the same time and are creating enormous pressure on the ecosystem." At the same time, however, there is so little data available that we don't even know how much impact these changes will have. The aim is to be able to make robust forecasts and inform politicians reliably and in good time about possible changes to the ecosystem in order to "ultimately enable truly sustainable management of the ecosystems," hopes Fiedler. Not least so that the archipelago in the north-east Atlantic remains more than just a logistical base for marine research.

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