Press release

25th Anniversary of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute for Polar and Marine Research

[07. July 2005] 

On July 15, 2005, the Alfred-Wegener-Institute for Polar and Marine Research will celebrate its 25th anniversary at its headquarters in Bremerhaven. Since 1980, the institute has been conducting research in the Antarctic and the Arctic, as well as in the North Sea and in other temperate oceans. It has continued the successful polar research of the early 20th century, inseparably connected with the names of Alfred Wegener and Georg von Neumayer. Today, the institute’s research activities range from plate tectonics and food webs to the causes and effects of climate change.

During the early years, Professor Gotthilf Hempel, first Director of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute, provided the ground work for timely and efficient research in the Antarctic and Arctic. In 1992, polar research of the former GDR was integrated through the research unit in Potsdam. Professor Max Tilzer, second Director of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute, planned the institute’s amalgamation with the ‘Biologische Anstalt Helgoland’ and its field station on Sylt, realised in 1998. Nowadays, approximately 800 employees contribute to polar research in the Antarctic and Arctic from four locations in Germany, six research vessels and five polar stations. The research vessel Polarstern, worldwide still the most powerful research ice breaker, remains the most important tool for polar research. Polarstern has travelled more than one million nautical miles and has been used by about 7000 German and foreign scientists.

At the time the institute was established, research was focussed particularly on a key species of the Antarctic ecosystem: Krill occurs in seemingly limitless abundances and forms the food basis for many other inhabitants of the Antarctic, including fish and whales. The krill, which had been known to live in the open water column in the summer, grazes algae from the underside of the ice during winter. This discovery has significantly improved our understanding of polar food web functioning. Subsequently, the importance of polar regions for global climate increasingly became research focus.

“The dynamics and rate of climate change are particularly visible at the poles. Our goal is to understand how the earth functions as a system; how the atmosphere, biosphere, the oceans and the polar regions interact with one another”, Professor Jörn Thiede, Director of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute since 1997 and since 2002 acting president of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), explains the aims and objectives of polar climate research. All natural science disciplines collaborate towards this extensive task following the example of Alfred Wegener - meteorologist, polar researcher and founder of the theory of continental drift, whom the institute was named after.

The success is apparent: Under the leadership of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute and within the context of the EPICA project, an ice core from more than 3200 metre depth has doubled our knowledge of Antarctic climate history, now including a period of more than 800,000 years. Analysis of the atmosphere trapped in minute bubbles in the ice has demonstrated that the current concentration of the atmospheric greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has reached its highest value in the past 500,000 years. With international collaboration, the Alfred-Wegener-Institute carries out comparable analyses on the Greenland ice shield or in permafrost soils of the Siberian tundra, proving analogous developments across the globe. Apart from historic records, scientists collect current climate data and use not only Polarstern, but also the polar aircraft owned by the institute as well as modern technology. Together, these measurements and the historic records provide the basis for computer models facilitating the understanding of complex relationships and optimising climate predictions.
Biologists of the institute are interested in the effects of temperature changes and increased UV radiation on marine ecosystems. At the Dallmann Laboratory in the Antarctic, operated jointly with Argentina and the Netherlands, plants and animals of the seafloor are investigated. In the open ocean, researchers, once again, have been studying the krill: Reduced abundances in the Antarctic South Atlantic Ocean could have far reaching consequences for the Antarctic ecosystem. However, changes have also been documented from the North Sea: the Biological Institute on Helgoland and the Wadden Sea Station on Sylt have been investigating the immigration of warm-adapted species.

Nevertheless, many questions still lack answers. The research capacity needs to be expanded further in order to close the gaps in knowledge. The launching of the European research satellite ‘CryoSat’, scheduled for September 2005, will enable continual monitoring of the polar ice shields. Starting in 2008, research activities in the Antarctic will continue from the new research station ‘Neumayer III’. In contrast to its predecessors, this station will be maintained continually above the snow surface through a system of hydraulic stilts. Some of these plans are part of the preparations for the International Polar Year 2007/2008. The merging of research capacity from numerous countries and institutes is intended to facilitate large-scale projects in polar regions. For this, the Alfred-Wegener-Institute will make an important contribution with its logistic resources and scientific expertise.

Bremerhaven, July 7, 2005.

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Das Institut

Das Alfred-Wegener-Institut forscht in den Polarregionen und Ozeanen der mittleren und hohen Breiten. Als eines von 19 Forschungszentren der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft koordiniert es Deutschlands Polarforschung und stellt Schiffe wie den Forschungseisbrecher Polarstern und Stationen für die internationale Wissenschaft zur Verfügung.