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.

Insights into Research Field Earth and Environment

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

A virtual walk on the ocean floor

GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

At some sites on the ocean floor water is emitted that can reach temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius and is rich in minerals and sulphur. In most cases these hydrothermal vents form near mid-ocean ridges and on submarine volcanoes. The minerals deposited around them create chimney-like structures called black smokers. Hydrothermal vents are potential sources of raw materials. In addition, they are home to unique ecosystems and teach us a great deal about processes on the ocean floor. Under the supervision of GEOMAR, an international research team has surveyed a hydrothermal field with centimetre accuracy for the very first time. The field is located at a depth of around 1,100 metres in the crater of Niua South Volcano north of Tonga. The FALKOR research vessel operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute served as a platform for the work. To conduct the surveys, the research team used ROPOS, a Canadian-built remotely operated vehicle (ROV). ROPOS was equipped with a camera system specially developed at GEOMAR. In a complex procedure, the cameras photographed and filmed the hydrothermal vents from all angles, making it possible to take a virtual “walk” between the black smokers. “A high-performance computer on board the vessel created a digital 3D model of the entire landscape from the more than 200,000 images. This enabled us to take targeted samples of the ocean floor,” says expedition leader Tom Kwasnitschka from GEOMAR. The digital model will now be further refined and made available for additional studies. “This method will allow us to take virtual walks on the ocean floor after completion of the expedition. Colleagues who were not on board will also have the opportunity to study the Niua South field,” explains Kwasnitschka. During the expedition the vehicle’s dives were transmitted live via the internet. In addition, the team repeatedly fielded questions from interested audiences worldwide, with live satellite links to lectures in Germany, Canada and the United States.

ESA to focus on plant research

Forschungszentrum Jülich

The Flex satellite of the European Space Agency (ESA) will be launched in around six years and will collect global data on plant productivity. Its core component is the HyPlant spectrometer, co-developed and tested by plant researchers at Forschungszentrum Jülich. The instrument measures the fluorescence signal emitted by plants and is thus a reliable indicator of when they are under stress and perform less photosynthesis due to unfavourable environmental conditions such as drought. The Flex data could help to optimise the cultivation and harvesting of crops.

Billions of juvenille fish under arctic sea ice

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

Belugas, narwhal and ringed seal have one thing in common: their favourite food is Arctic cod. The fish is one of the most important species in the Arctic Ocean. It was previously unknown how large its stocks are under sea ice, but now AWI biologists have managed to catch Arctic cod directly under the ice using a special net and to determine its distribution. According to their findings, several billion cod, primarily juvenile fish, could live under the ice cover. For these creatures, the ice labyrinth is a source of food and shelter.

Using FerryBox data to evaluate models

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

FerryBox measurement systems have been installed on ferries and cargo ships in the North Sea to obtain high time-resolution surface data, including measures of water temperature and salinity along shipping routes. Scientists from the HZG and the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency have compared the FerryBox data (along the Immingham–Cuxhaven route) with the results of models and discovered that these models underestimated salinity. The Ferry-Box data can thus help to improve hydrodynamic models of the North Sea.

Non-allergic pollen compounds can intensify allergies

Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health

Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have discovered the mechanism by which non-allergenic pollen compounds intensify allergies. In addition to allergens, low-molecular-weight compounds can cause B cells to increase the production of immunoglobulin E. The researchers hope not only to develop new treatments, but also to determine whether climate change alters the composition of pollen and influences its aggressiveness.

Eearthquake risk for Istanbul

Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences

A large earthquake will one day hit Istanbul, but no one knows when or with what magnitude. GFZ scientists are now helping with estimates. They are creating a catalogue of historical seismicity for the North Anatolian Fault Zone which goes back 2,300 years. According to the data, a megaquake of magnitude 8 is likely, but only in the zone’s eastern section. In the west, where Istanbul is located, major earthquakes are expected but none with a magnitude of more than 7.5. Nevertheless, even earthquakes of this strength can be devastating. Now, at least, there is a basis for risk assessment.

Improving water quality worldwide

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ

For two years scientists from the UFZ and the University of Kassel analysed data and developed a methodology to assess the quality of rivers and lakes and consequences of water degradation worldwide. On 19 May 2016 they presented the initial findings of the World Water Quality Assessment (WWQA) pre-study. The WWQA seeks not only to describe the current situation but also to close data gaps, identify the causes of pollution, show consequences and define policy options. The ultimate goal is to improve water quality worldwide.

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    • Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius
    • Research Field Coordinator Earth and Environment
      Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI)


"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