Mourning for Jörn Thiede

Former Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute and GEOMAR passed away at the age of 80.
[19. July 2021] 

With great dismay and sadness, we have heard that our former Director, colleague and friend, Prof. Dr Jörn Thiede, has passed away. A few months ago, on his 80th birthday, we celebrated his impressive life and achievements for the German and international geosciences, especially marine and polar research - unfortunately mainly digitally.

We would like to commemorate him comprehensively with this tribute and take comfort in all the special moments, the many events and activities that will forever remember him. His scientific work in marine geosciences and palaeontology is groundbreaking and has had a significant impact on marine and polar research. His visionary view, even far beyond these disciplines, has left its mark on us. The basic scientific gain of knowledge and the innovation of research in international partnership were always his top priorities. His research and his contribution to research management made a decisive contribution to establishing GEOMAR and AWI internationally as hotspots of ocean, coastal and polar research. Until recently, he pursued the great task of advancing research on the role of the oceans and polar regions and their enormous diversity and relevance for our lives through work in countless committees at home and abroad. For all of this, we are deeply grateful to him.

Eighty years ago, on 14 April 1941, his life’s journey began in Berlin, at a time marked by the catastrophic effects of the Second World War. Already during his school years in Kiel, Jörn Thiede was interested in geological topics and, together with his friends Friedrich Seifert and Dietrich Horn, studied the ice-age landscape in the vicinity under the guidance of Prof. Walter Wetzel. The study of earth sciences in Kiel followed and also brought him to the universities of Vienna and Buenos Aires. In 1967 he completed his studies with a diploma thesis on the stratigraphy and tectonics of the Lower and Middle Devonian in the Rhenish Slate Mountains under the supervision of Prof. Krömmelbein. Even then, his international perspective on the relevance of research in geological history developed.

After graduating, he moved to Aarhus University, where he worked as a lecturer in exogenous geology. Under Eugen Seibold, who taught in Kiel from 1958, marine geology developed into a new branch of earth sciences in Kiel. Jörn Thiede enthusiastically turned to this discipline to do his doctorate under Eugen Seibold on sediments of the eastern Atlantic off the Iberian Peninsula and off Morocco. He studied deposits of planktonic foraminifera and their quantitative distribution in order to derive statements about the history of changing environmental parameters. He published new findings on the influence of temperature and salinity on the distribution of foraminifera even before his doctorate in 1971. As a sedimentologist, Jörn Thiede participated in the expedition with the drilling ship Glomar Challenger to the Indian Ocean (Leg 24), which certainly established his love for expeditions and large research infrastructures. From 1973 to 1975, Jörn Thiede worked in Bergen, Norway, as a university lecturer and associate professor and as a sedimentologist on the Deep Sea Drilling Project Leg 39 in the central Atlantic.

His move to Oregon State University in 1974 marked the beginning of a lifelong collaboration with Erwin Suess, whom he later appointed to the Research Centre for Marine Geosciences (GEOMAR), which he had newly founded. Both were interested in oceanic upwelling regions. His studies on the changes in the Mediterranean Sea during the last ice age also fall into this period.

In 1977, he was appointed to the chair of historical geology at the University of Oslo, and Norway became his second home. His work expanded across all the world’s oceans. Further deep-sea drilling expeditions followed with Leg 61 and immediately afterwards as Co-Chief Scientist on Leg 62 in the Pacific. His work on the dynamics of the wind regime during the recent geological past is widely cited today. In Oslo, his collaboration with the geophysicist and marine geologist Olaf Eldholm and the geophysicist Annik Myhre deepened. His focus as a paleo-oceanographer on the sediments of the seabed as “the most complete diary of Earth’s history”, as he called it, enabled a deeper space-time understanding of the development of the oceans and the Earth. Jörn Thiede participated effectively in further developing the Deep Sea Drilling Program into the Ocean Drilling Program in the international research network and took part in the Arctic expedition YMER, which fueled his interest in the Nordic Seas.

In 1982, Jörn Thiede returned to Kiel to take up the chair of palaeontology and historical geology, primarily to research the history of the northern latitudes and the Arctic Ocean, which culminated in two ODP campaigns with the deep drilling research vessel JOIDES RESOLUTION: ODP Leg 104 “The Norwegian Continental Margin” and ODP Leg 151 “North Atlantic Gateways”, which contributed significant new insights into the glaciation history of the Northern Hemisphere. Together with colleagues from the Geological and Palaeontological Institute and the Institute of Oceanography, he began preparations for a new Collaborative Research Centre, which was then successfully funded from 1985 to 1998 under the title “Sedimentation in the European North Sea”.

In the mid-1980s, the DFG set up a working group on the question of how to strengthen the marine geosciences in Germany - and the result was that in September 1987, GEOMAR was founded as an affiliated institute of the CAU, and Jörn Thiede was appointed as founding Director. He was able to convince the state government to build an enormously visionary new building on the Seefischmarkt site in Kiel, including considerable investment in deep-sea research. With clever appointments from Germany and abroad, he developed GEOMAR into one of the best ocean research centres in the world. Despite many important management tasks, Jörn Thiede continued to participate in sensational expeditions - including with the research icebreaker POLARSTERN and the Swedish ODEN, which reached the North Pole on 7 September 1991.

This was followed in autumn 1997 by his appointment as Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, where Jörn Thiede was appointed Professor of Palaeoceanography at the University of Bremen. During this time, he designed important large-scale projects such as the merger with the Biological Institute Helgoland and the integration of the coastal stations Helgoland and Sylt, the extension of the AWI at the double lock Bremerhaven, the midlife conversion of the research icebreaker Polarstern and the new construction of the German research station on Antarctica, Neumayer III. Through cooperation in polar research, especially with the Arctic littoral states, he particularly deepened the cooperation with Norway, France and Russia.

With the French partners, the respective national programmes on Spitsbergen were transferred to the joint German-French station AWIPEV. He established fruitful contacts with the Shirshov Institute in Moscow and the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg. This was followed in 1999 by the founding of the Otto Schmidt Laboratory for Polar and Marine Research in St. Petersburg together with Dr Heidi Kassens from GEOMAR and the establishment of an international Master’s programme POMOR at St. Petersburg State University with the participation of North German universities. Jörn Thiede worked tirelessly to build up international polar research, serving as President of the European Polar Board from 1999-2002 and President of SCAR, the International Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, from 2002-2006. He was also Vice-President of the Helmholtz Association from 2003-2006. He was heavily involved in a European lighthouse project, the construction of an international ice-breaking drilling research vessel Aurora Borealis. At the sites he headed, he also made a significant early commitment to promoting women in research and in leadership positions.

Even after his retirement in 2007, Jörn Thiede continued his activities in international cooperation and the support of young scientists, first as professor of “Geology and Climate” at the Danish Geo Centre in Copenhagen from 2008-2011, then with the award of the “Megagrant” from the Russian Ministry of Education and Research and the Cathedra for Paleoclimate Research in Russia since 2010.

Jörn Thiede has received many awards in recognition of his scientific achievements, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the DFG (1988), the Cross of Merit on Ribbon of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1995), honorary citizenship of the city of Bremerhaven (2010) and the International Willy Brandt Prize (2011). Among the international awards, the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society (London), the Grand Prix d`Océanographie of the Fondation Rainier III de Monaco, the Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite, France as well as the Honorary Fellow of the EUG and Honorary Doctorates of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and St. Petersburg State University are to be highlighted. From 1991, Jörn Thiede served as a member of the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz, from 2004 and ACATECH, and as a member of the National Academy Leopoldina from 2007. He was a member of the Royal Norwegian Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Natural Sciences - Russian Federation, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, and the Academia Europaea.

Jörn Thiede’s tireless, cheerful and ambitious work at our sites and for Earth system sciences worldwide, as well as his forward-looking expeditionary spirit, are and will remain an inspiration to us. We mourn with his family and all those who were connected to him and appreciate his work.

The staff and management of GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.


Sabine Rainey
+49 471 4831 1101

Anja Kottsieper
+49 471 4831 1285