Ralf Dahrendorf Prize for Potsdam Research Team

Investigations into thawing permafrost soils and their effects on climate change
[14. May 2019] 

Today the members of the PETA-CARB team at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam have every reason to celebrate, as they were recently honoured with a brand-new award: the Ralf Dahrendorf Prize for the European Research Area, which recognises outstanding engagement in key EU research projects, as well as the motivation to share the project outcomes with the public. The prize, which is awarded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, went to a total of six recipients, each of which will receive a cash award of up to 50,000 euros.

Praising the prize-winners during a speech in Berlin, Federal Minister Anja Karliczek had the following to say: “For important scientific contributions and research to promote a healthy future, we need more public awareness. In this regard, scientific communication plays a decisive role: it shares scientific findings with society at large and promotes an atmosphere of intellectual openness.”

With the aid of the funding attached to the new prize, the research group led by Professor Guido Grosse and Dr Josefine Lenz can share their important findings with a broader audience, and ‘go public’ with the latest news on how permanently frozen soils (permafrost) will affect our climate.

Thawing permafrost will accelerate climate change

We human beings are responsible for global warming. As a result, Artic permafrost is thawing faster and faster, and at greater depths. In the process, massive quantities of carbon that were locked away from the global carbon cycle for millennia are now being released. Permafrost normally acts as a giant ‘deep-freeze’ for storing carbon, performing a vital climate-regulating function; but when it thaws, it can no longer fulfil that function, and the resultant carbon release significantly accelerates global warming.

Roughly a quarter of all landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere will be affected by changes in the permafrost; yet very few people realise what the thawing processes in distant Siberia or Alaska will mean for climate change – and for all of us living on this planet. The fact is that the dwindling permafrost soils will greatly reduce the time left to implement effective climate protection policies. Accordingly, the better we understand the changes at work in the permafrost, the better we can gauge their impacts on climate change, and the more concretely we can discuss the measures that need to be pursued to combat global warming at the societal and political level.

The experts participating in the PETA-CARB project chose to take on this important task. In the course of their research, they arrived at new findings on the thawing processes sparked by climate change and their potential effects on the global carbon cycle. Combining field studies, remote sensing, and modelling, they systematically analysed the rapid thawing of the permafrost and determined the carbon content in deep permafrost layers.

Good research needs to be shared and discussed

For most people, permafrost is a distant phenomenon that seems to have little to do with their own lives, making it hard for them to relate to. With the help of the resources provided by the Ralf Dahrendorf Prize, the Potsdam-based researchers hope to help overcome that distance by showing interested members of the general public the broad landmasses that are home to permafrost soils, and the tremendous quantities of carbon they store. To do so, they will use a temporary exhibit format, in which visitors use a 3D visor to immerse themselves in a virtual permafrost world. They’ll also have the chance to see, hear, touch and smell permafrost, thanks to original archaeological artefacts from the Ice Age and hands-on permafrost experimentation boxes. Lastly, ‘before-and-after’ lenticular images, together with video and audio recordings from expeditions to the Arctic, will help illustrate the thawing of the permafrost, and the fieldwork involved in investigating it.

The EU project PETA-CARB was funded by:

The 7th EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, specific programme: ‘Ideas’, European Research Council Programme (ERC starting grant)



Guido Grosse

Josefine Lenz

Press Office

Folke Mehrtens