Prof. Dr. Peter M. Herzig: IFM-GEOMAR – Understanding the oceans means creating the future

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.

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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.
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The deep-sea robots AUV ABYSS and ROV KIEL 6000 can reach depths of 6,000 metres. The manned research submersible JAGO allows scientists a direct view of the ocean floor. FM-GEOMAR’s deep sea lander-systems carry out long-term observations on the ocean floor.

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.

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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.

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Marked by the sea. A view over the city and the Kiel Fjord.

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.

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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.

Peter_Herzig_01The 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.