Project "Permafrost Change"

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, we will 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, we will use a temporary exhibit format and workshops where people 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. More over visitors can use a 3D visor to immerse themselves in a virtual permafrost world. 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.

In May 2019, the ERC PETA-CARB Project was honored with the Ralf-Dahrendorf Prize awarded by the Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Supported by the award, the new project “Permafrost Change” started in January 2020 led by Dr. Josefine Lenz. The aim of the outreach project is to communicate permafrost and changes by a warmer climate to the public.

Materials & Tools

Experiments demonstrate permafrost thaw

What happens when permafrost thaws? In an experimental set-up we demonstrate what happens to soil and ice when it warms up over time. This time lapse video shows the effect of ground subsidence by permafrost thaw. As a result, buildings and roads destabilize, water and ecosystems are changing.

3D print of a permafrost landscape

How do you imagine an Arctic landscape characterized by permafrost? The answer is visualized by a 3-dimensional print of an Arctic landscape in Northeast Siberia, the Bykovsky Peninsula. This pensinsula is situated in the Lena Delta at the Laptev Sea coast and underlain by up to 600 m of permafrost. Thaw processes have formed erosional valleys and many lake generations. The model also allows a better explanation of the development of pingos, lagoons and coastal erosion, as well as explaining polygonal structures and effects of human impact.


A second model shows a thaw slump on Qikiqtaruk/Herschel Island (Slump D, 69.59°N, 139.08°W), located in the Yukon Territory, in northest Canada. Thaw slumps form when ground ice melts on slopes. As a result, sediments and plant remains are transported into rivers and the ocean, thereby changing the biochemistry of the water. The data were collected by Gonçalo Vieira und Pedro Pina (University of Lisbon, EU Project Nunataryuk) in July 2018 using an eBee Plus RTK Drone with integrated S.O.D.A 3D Camera.

Before and after of Arctic landscapes

12 meters of coastal land disappear in the sea within 7 days? Lakes drain within hours to days? A tundra fire expands to 220 km² within a month? Hard to believe but true – and nicely illustrated by flip images in lenticular print.

Wooden cubes visualize carbon pools

How large is the permafrost carbon pool?

How large is it compared to the carbon stored in global soils or fossil fuels or atmosphere?

We have created wooden boxes to make these numbers easier to understand and relate too. The audience will be able to guess and test themselves. And likely will be surprised.

Wooden tiles to estimate the area of snow and ice (and permafrost!)

Snow, sea ice, glaciers and ice shields in comparison to the area of permafrost?

What is the extend of these elements of the cryosphere – also in relation to the country of Germany?

The back of the wooden tiles are revealing the result and some additional information.

Infographics illustrating key messages of our permafrost research

In our project we developed illustrations. Together with the practical elements outlined here they help a better understanding of the topics of permafrost thaw, carbon storage and relevance of the permafrost region.


16-18 September 2021

On 16-18 September, our Team is presenting real permafrost with all its facets at the Explore Science Festival in Bremen organized by the Klaus Tschira Association.

23 July 2021

The WWF 2°Campus School Academy 2021 finished this year with a visit to AWI on Friday 23 July.

Building on the knowledge from the virtual presentation Maren and Loeka held in March 2021, the 20 school academy participants were the first to try out the newly developed practical elements: they were able to discuss the importance of permafrost with the help of wooden tiles and cubes, lenticular images, landscape photos, a thawing experiment, and 3D printed models. In the AWI labs, they could look at fossils from permafrost regions and touch and smell real permafrost. After the intensive exercises in small groups, everyone was gathered for a few Arctic and Antarctic short movies and a final discussion and Q&A session.

All participants, supervisors and the “Permafrost im Wandel” team were very enthusiastic about the interactive exchange, which we have been missing a lot since last year.

30 March 2021

It is now several years that an Arctic focused AWI presentation on the topic of permafrost is given in the school academy of WWF 2°Campus. This year, Loeka Jongejans and Maren Jenrich met the 20 participants in a virtual room to discuss what happens when thousands of years old frozen soils is starting to thaw. Besides impressive pictures and facts, they gave impressions on the daily life and work of a polar researcher and provided a video-tour through the laboratories of AWI, as well as insights into the field work adventure. While the presentation was open for external participants, the school academy participants met Loeka and Maren in a closed room for further discussion on the thaw experiments they have prepared at home and the permafrost comics we sent them in advance. A small online quiz closed our contribution to the WWF 2°Campus School Academy 2021.

February/March 2021


Title: Mammoths and reindeer as environmental engineers? (Online Presentation)

In the OFFENES HAUS at AWI, Torben Windirsch brings his research into the classroom. The new OFFENES HAUS program was organized by the HIGHSEA School Lab in Bremerhaven. After a half-hour lecture by Torben Windirsch, in which he gave an insight into his field of research and his work, he answered the questions of the students.

9 February 2021

We are happy to announce that our project has been selected as a success story for collaboration in the European Research Area. In this short movie, goals and first results of the project are presented. Now we are very much looking forward to try things out with a real audience.

23 July 2020

After last week's focus was on permafrost and carbon, Ingmar Nitze and Matthias Fuchs have now ventured a view from above and talked in the livestream together with AWI4Future about "Permafrost in time and space - how the Arctic landscape is changing". Again, important questions were taken up and discussed in the subsequent discussion.

21 July 2020

In the frame of the German EU Council Presidency, a number of key persons in the science sector were filmed, among them AWI director Antje Boetius and Josefine Lenz as co-awardee of the Dahrendorf Award. The footage was presented by the BMBF at the informal Council Meeting of Research Ministers on 21 July 2020.

16 July 2020

Together with AWI4Future, Matthias Fuchs and Josefine Lenz spoke in a livestream about "Permafrost soil without frost - what does that mean for us and the carbon budget?" After a half-hour presentation by the two scientists, questions from the chat were answered and discussed. A total of 55 interested people watched, with up to 30 people participating at the same time.

29 May 2020

A digital climate change workshop entitled “It's thawing! Arctic permafrost in climate change” (in German) was given by Josefine “in” the Experimental Field of the Museum of Natural History. Through photos, videos and even a live experiment, the 25 participants learned about important facts of permafrost thawing. A survey at the beginning of the event showed that the topic was new to most participants but of great interest, and also that not all of them were located in the area of Berlin (one even in Luxembourg!) and knew about the workshop from previous museum events. Using a virtual blackboard, we collected ideas how to prevent climate and permafrost warming, as well as feedback.

7 April 2020

WWF 2°Campus @ AWI Potsdam (Presentation & live demonstration of experiments)

This year’s School Academy of WWF was spontaneously scheduled online, with contributions from AWI. Josefine presented „Frozen Worlds – About visible and invisible Changes in the Arctic“ from her „kitchen office“. Including two live experiments which demonstrated what happens when ice is melting in water and in the ground, she aimed at bringing the topic of permafrost change closer to the students.

Besides 20 WWF 2°Campus students, another 36 fellow students and friends, as well as teachers and undergrads participated so that the reach and range of audience was actually increased by this new online format. Followed another discussion session for the smaller group of WWF students, many oft hem used the chance to ask burning questions and have a more „direct“ contact via video chat. Even some „living statistics“ were applicable Josefine by using hand and finger signals (e.g. participants indicated they are located in all over Germany, the northernmost destination reached by the group was Iceland).

According to the organizers, the students provided very positive feedback: They find the work of a polar researcher very exciting and were impressed by Josefine’s presentation. Who knows, maybe we meet some them again as polar researchers…!

A recording of the presentation will become available online through the WWF 2°Campus School Academy.

14 January 2020

students of the International Lomonossow School Berlin @ AWI Potsdam (Presentation & lab tour)