We know more about the dark side of the moon than we do about the ocean deeps. Although we know the dimensions of the oceans and their coastlines, and that about 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, much of what lies below the water’s surface remains a mystery. The morphology of the ocean floor is, in many areas, as little known as its composition, or the life-forms and resources hidden in the ocean depths. A large proportion of mankind lives along the world’s coastlines and is thus exposed to the natural hazards of the sea, but the oceans are also an important food-source for many people, and much of the world’s trade is transported by sea. The health of the oceans is crucial for the future of mankind; they undoubtedly offer many opportunities but these need to be weighed up against the risks involved.
Schleswig-Holstein – an ideal location for marine research
Marine research in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany and throughout the world has a responsibility to evaluate the opportunities offered by the oceans and also to assess the hazards that they present. The location of Schleswig-Holstein between two seas makes it a natural location for marine research. The research spectrum of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR) in Kiel, which was established in 2004, ranges from the geology of the deep ocean floors to the atmosphere above the oceans, encompassing aspects of climate change, marine ecosystems, ocean resources and natural marine hazards.
The institute is unique in Germany, but operates in close collaboration with establishments such as the Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht and the Research and Technology Centre, Westcoast (FTZ), as well as other marine research institutions under the umbrella of the German Marine Research Consortium (KDM). Within the space of just five years IFM-GEOMAR has grown to be one of the three leading marine research institutions in Europe, alongside the national marine research centres of France and Great Britain.
With around 700 employees, an annual budget of 60 million Euros and an extensive infrastructure that includes four research vessels, deep-sea robots and the only manned research submersible in Germany, the institute has achieved considerable influence which extends far beyond the national borders. It is also a participant in major scientific research projects such as the Cluster of Excellence entitled “The Future Ocean”, and two collaborative research projects of the German Research Foundation, in which many small and medium-sized companies developing innovative technology for marine research also participate.
Opportunities and hazards of the oceans
Amongst the opportunities and potential hidden within the oceans are, for example, substances won from bacteria and other organisms that have great potential for the development of new forms of medication. The Kiel Centre of Marine Natural Products (Kieler Wirkstoffzentrum, or “KiWiZ”) at IFM-GEOMAR carries out pure and applied research that will provide a foundation for future economic use of the oceans’ resources.
Energy reserves that have not yet been tapped also lie dormant on the ocean floor bound up in methane gas hydrates, and could provide an abundant energy source for the future. IFM-GEOMAR had already begun its research on marine methane hydrates during the 1990s, and as a result it is now a world renowned authority in this field. A major research project with numerous partners from science, industry and economic concerns aims, over the coming years, to determine whether it is possible to combine the use of natural gas contained in methane hydrates with storage of carbon dioxide, thus dealing simultaneously with fundamental questions regarding climate protection and energy supply.
Apart from the depletion of fossil energy supplies, many of the world’s known mineral deposits are running out of ore. Marine research scientists from Schleswig-Holstein are world-renowned experts in the investigation and evaluation of base and precious metal ore discoveries within sub-marine mountain areas of the world’s oceans, where the possibility of mining may not be too far away. As with the methane hydrates, however, there is a major need for further research into environmentally friendly methods of economic development.
With regard to the hazards presented by the oceans, the negative effects of climate change are, among other things, expected to include a rise in sea levels as well as more frequent and powerful storm surges. The acidification of sea water as a result of climate change also threatens the habitats of many marine organisms, particularly those of corals. Ocean acidification may endanger a whole range of marine life-forms, from micro-organisms to the large fish that are already suffering from over-fishing. With the seas being such a fundamentally important source of food for mankind, the demand for fish already exceeds the availability, and many areas have been totally depleted by overfishing. Fish-breeding in aquaculture facilities is becoming increasingly important relative to the more traditional commercial fishing industries. IFM-GEOMAR marine researchers are helping to develop more eco-friendly methods and provide advice for sustainable management of the fishing industry and for land based closed-circulation aquaculture.
In addition to the effects of climate change mentioned above, the oceans also present natural hazards that threaten the natural resources and ecological diversity of the largest living space on Earth. As well as the storm surges mentioned previously, these of course include tsunamis caused by submarine earthquakes or landslides. This is an area where marine science and economy meet. Scientific expertise from IFM-GEOMAR together with state-of-the-art technologies let to the implementation of new observation systems such as tsunami early warning systems to protect the lives of people living in endangered coastal regions.
Excellent research requires modern infrastructure
Science and economics go hand in hand in many aspects of marine research. On the one hand, new scientific discoveries often lead to future economic uses, and on the other hand, science often requires the development of new technologies in order to be able to carry out the desired research – a requirement that is met by innovative German industries. These requirements include, amongst other things, both manned and unmanned submersibles – a field in which IFM-GEOMAR is a leading force. In addition to the manned research submersible JAGO, it runs the remotely-controlled deep sea robot KIEL 6000 and the autonomously operating under-water vehicle ABYSS. While JAGO can reach depths of up to 400 metres, both of the other robots exceed this and can reach to 6,000 metres. As well as operating its own four research vessels, IFM-GEOMAR is also a major user of the globally active German research vessels SONNE, METEOR and MERIAN. Thus IFM-GEOMAR is equipped with an innovative technical infrastructure, which provides the basis for first-class, internationally competitive research.
The author studied Geology and Mineralogy, doctorate in 1986, 1988 to 89 post-doc at the University of Toronto, habilitation in 1992, 1993 to 2003 professor at the TU Freiberg. Since 2004, director of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences. He is winner of the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation, Maritime Ambassador of the European Commission and Maritime Coordinator of Schleswig-Holstein.