Two of the highest European research prizes awarded to GFZ

Liane G. Benning and Stephan Sobolev each receive around three million Euro in funding for projects on snow algae and the history of the Earth's origins.

Two researchers of GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences have independently received a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council ERC. The Helmholtz Centre Potsdam will thus receive a total of around 6 million Euro.

Synergy Grants connect researchers internationally. Another special feature, in addition to the double success for the GFZ, is the fact that GFZ prizewinner Stephan Sobolev has raised the funding together with his twin brother Alexander, who conducts research in Grenoble. The two projects funded by the GFZ are called "MEET" and "DEEP PURPLE". They deal with the history of the origin of the Earth over 4.4 billion years on the one hand, and with snow algae, which contribute significantly to the ice melting on Greenland, on the other hand. GFZ CEO Reinhard Hüttl congratulates both groups: "This is a great success for Liane G. Benning and Stephan Sobolev. I would like to thank them and their colleagues. As different as the two projects may seem, they show one thing: Earth can only be explored and understood as a system.”

Liane G. Benning has won the grant with the project "DEEP PURPLE". Together with colleagues, she is investigating the relationship between geology, geochemistry, biology and climate on the basis of the increasing algal bloom on Arctic snow and ice surfaces. On Greenland, the teams from Aarhus, Bristol and Potsdam are investigating how glacial algae grow and interact with their icy habitat. The pink to purple microorganisms darken the surface of the ice sheets and thus accelerate the melting of the glaciers.

The researchers will work at many different locations in Greenland and measure surface darkening and glacial algae density. They also want to determine how much soot and dust the algae trap thus contributing even more to ice melting. The aim is to understand exactly how the biological darkening takes place and thus to be able to estimate where and when it will occur in the future.

"DEEP PURPLE" is endowed with a total of around 11 million euros and unites the teams around Martyn Tranter from the University of Bristol (Great Britain), Alex Anesio from the Aarhus Universitet in Denmark and Liane G. Benning from GFZ in Potsdam. The Potsdam-based geochemist says: "I am looking forward to the opportunity to examine the complex interactions between the different light-absorbing particulates - microbes, minerals, soot - down to the smallest detail. As the ice melting season continues longer and longer and the darkening of the surface by algae takes on ever greater proportions, it is all the more important to understand the processes behind it". For, adds Liane G. Benning, "the melting Greenland ice contributes significantly to global sea-level rise".

The other Synergy Grant goes to geophysicist Stephan Sobolev. In the "MEET" project, together with his twin brother Alexander at the Institute of Sciences de la Terre at the University of Grenoble and John Valley (University of Madison, Wisconsin, USA), he is researching the evolution of our planet. MEET stands for "Monitoring Earth Evolution through Time" and spans the period from 4.4 billion years ago to the present day. Two questions are the focus of the researchers' interest: How has the chemical composition of the Earth developed over time? And what physical processes are behind these changes?

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to understand the movement of mass and energy between the deep mantle of the Earth, the surface and back again – what geologists call recycling. Geological recycling is the cause of the dramatic changes in the Earth's crust and mantle over the last 4.5 billion years since the creation of the planet, for the continents above sea level, and for the resources that humans use today. The evolution of the Earth has profound implications for issues in other disciplines such as the origin of life and conditions on exoplanets.

Despite its obvious significance, the evolution of the Earth is still little understood. For almost all remnants of the past have been altered or destroyed over the eons and chemical information was lost. However, there are tiny remains: so-called inclusions in ancient minerals, zircon and olivine, contain information from the deep geological past. The French and American researchers want to investigate these inclusions more closely. At GFZ, their data will be used to develop a physical model of the Earth in order to quantify the exchange processes and recycling between the Earth's mantle and the surface. The GFZ team around Stephan Sobolev will also cooperate with GFZ’s neighbor, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Together they will develop a new class of Earth system models combining models of mantle convection, plate tectonics, surface erosion and climate. In this way, they want to test their hypothesis about the important role of surface processes in controlling the formation and development of plate tectonics, which was recently published in the journal Nature.

Funding: Synergy Grants of the European Research Council ERC are similar in their individual amounts to the ERC's highest award, the Advanced Grant. They are not subject-related and bring together researchers from several countries. The total amount of both awards for MEET and DEEP PURPLE is just under 24 million euros, distributed among five institutions. The MEET consortium receives 12.8 million euros (3 of which go to the GFZ), the DEEP PURPLE teams share 11 million euros (also 3 million euros for the GFZ). The funding period is six years, starting in 2020.

Scientific Contact:
Liane G. Benning
Section Head
Interface Geochemistry
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam
GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
14473 Potsdam
Twitter: @LianeGBenning

Stephan Sobolev
Section Head Geodynamic Modelling
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam
GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
14473 Potsdam

Media Contact:
Josef Zens
Head of Press and Media Relations
Helmholtz Centre Potsdam
GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
14473 Potsdam
Phone: +49 331 288-1040
Twitter: @GFZ_Potsdam

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