Main Research Focus

The primary framework of our activities is the research program Polar regions and Coasts in a changing Earth System (PACES) which is part of the research field Earth and Environment of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres (HGF). Within the current PACES II programm (2014 - 2018), we participate in the topics:

• Topic 1: "Changes and regional feedbacks in Arctic and Antarctic"
   Workpackage 1.6 Large scale variability and change in polar benthic biota and ecosystem functions

• Topic 2: "Fragile costs and shelf seas"
   Workpackage 2.3 Evolution and adaptation to climate change and anthropogenic stress in coastal and shelf systems
   Workpackage 2.5 Interface processes and physical dynamics of the coastal ocean

The section BPP's long term goal is to quantify the structure and function of polar megabenthic animals, their interaction with the pelagic system and susceptibility to natural disturbances and climate change. A mechanistic understanding of the bentho-pelagic processes can serve as important baseline to model the biological responses to rapid polar climate change.

Although retreating ice-shelves, increased iceberg calving and changing seasonal pack-ice cover are expected to have important repercussions on the Antarctic benthos, reliable data on benthic productivity and material cycling are still lacking. We aim at filling this gap to better understand the dynamics of Antarctic benthic communities and ecological functions by carrying out the first direct measurements to date on important process variables in situ, using advanced underwater technologies. While the focus is on sponges and corals, large skeletal filter-feeders providing important habitat for other organisms, we also study mobile sentinel species for climate change such as pinnipeds and fish, which play an important role in the Antarctic ecosystem as apex predators. The mid- to long-term goal is to combine structure and processes to better understand the biotic and environmental factors governing the distribution of biodiversity and biomass as well as their feedbacks to Antarctic climate change.

Bentho-Pelagic Research

Research at the Larsen Ice Shelf

Hexactinellid sponges may expand in a changing Antarctic (Photo: C. Richter (AWI), T. Lundälv (Uni Göteborg))

The Antarctic Peninsula region is one of the fastest warming regions of the planet. Catastrophic desintegrations of ice sheets along its western and eastern margins have exposed vast areas of formerly permanent ice cover and darkness to an unprecedented seasonal rain of sinking plankton food. Research led by BPP scientists documented areas sparsely populated by a relic under-ice fauna contrasting with areas dominated by pioneer species. Sponges were the surprising winners of the bonanza, doubling biomass in only four years. Repeat surveys are planned for coming expeditions to discover how Antarctic communities respond to climate change.

Research at the Filchner Outflow System

ARGOS locations (blue dots) of southern elephant seals (Photo: Horst Bornemann (AWI))

The region of the Filchner Trough System (77°S, 36°W) is considered a "hot spot", both in terms of biology and physical oceanography. The factors contributing to this oceanic area of enhanced food availability and its relation to physical processes are not yet understood. By including biotic components from phytoplankton via benthic organisms and fishes to seals and abiotic parameters such as bottom topography, sediment structure, and hydrographic features, we aim to comprehensively investigate the Filchner Outflow System. Here the outflow of ice shelf water of the Filchner Ronne Ice Shelf interacts with warm deep water of the Weddell Gyre circulation. This interaction is supposed to be the primary cause that converts this area into a biological "hotspot" where trophic level interactions are maximised. Oceanographic models predict marked changes in the hydrographic features of the Filchner Outflow System with potentially dramatic changes for the biodiversity in this area. Physical, biogeochemical and ecological studies with RV Polarstern in the Filchner Outflow System shall characterize this hotspot in detail.

International Integration and Consideration

Life at the Antarctic sea-bed (Photo: D. Piepenburg (AWI), A. Segelken-Voigt (Uni Oldenburg), J. Gutt (AWI))

Sea-bed inhabiting communities in the Weddell Sea and along the Antarctic Peninsula are relatively well known due to regular surveys in the past 30 years, especially by applying non-invasive imaging technology and through conceptual as well as numeric models. This refers to biodiversity patterns of sponges, cnidarians, sea-squirts, bryozoans, and echinoderms and their response to climate-driven environmental impact. The ecological results, of which most are uploaded to the data repositories ANTABIF and PANGAEA, are put into a wider topical and geographic context through international cooperation within integrative projects of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) such as Antarctic Thresholds - Ecosystem Resilience and Adaptation (AnT-ERA), the Antarctic Environments Portal, EU-PolarNet, and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Scientific knowledge on Antarctic biological processes is disseminated by additional national and international stakeholder-oriented initiatives.