GFZ German research centre for geo sciences

Farewell to Prof. Friedhelm von Blanckenburg

Prof. Friedhelm von Blanckenburg was given a ceremonial farewell into GFZ retirement with a colloquium. Prof. Dirk Scherler (interim) will take over the leadership of the section 3.3.

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg, long-time head of the GFZ-Section 3.3 “Earth Surface Geochemistry” and professor at the Free University of Berlin, was given a ceremonial farewell and honoured with a scientific colloquium on 29 September after 15 years at the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ. He looks back on a long and successful scientific career.

Merit for the GFZ

At the farewell ceremony, Susanne Buiter, Scientific Director of the GFZ, paid tribute to von Blanckenburg's many and diverse achievements – from the scientific highlights of his field to his influence on other disciplines, his commitment to the scientific community and science communication, and especially to the GFZ:

„Friedhelm von Blanckenburg founded the section Earth Surface Geochemistry and excelled scientifically. His publishing record speaks for itself. He also attracted successful talents who won ERC grants and published in excellent journals – and he will leave us with his own ERC grant continuing working with us after his retirement. He headed the Helmholtz Recruitment Initiatives for GFZ for two highly successful colleagues, Niels Hovius and Liane Benning. And he founded the HELGES lab, that has become a world-renowned laboratory. For five years, Friedhelm was the Helmholtz Topic Speaker for “Earth Surface and Climate” at GFZ. He coordinated the European Initial Training Network for PhD students IsoNose and was a member of the Helmholtz Think Tank.

So I would like to add just two more words: Thank you!“

The HELGES Laboratory

At the GFZ, Friedhelm von Blanckenburg set up the “HELGES – Helmholtz Laboratory for the Geochemistry of the Earth Surface“, which is now world-famous. It is used to analyse cosmogenic nuclides as well as stable isotopes of metals and metalloids. The latter are used to track and quantify the huge biogeochemical fluxes of substances at the Earth's surface – from rocks to soil to plants, to river water and finally to the oceans.

Scientific highlights

Isotope geochemistry and mass spectrometry are among Friedhelm von Blanckenburg's main research areas. For example, he also initiated one of the first papers on the fractionation of isotopes in plants. The work led to the development of new methods that enabled important insights into the interactions between the biosphere and the geosphere. Among other things, it allows the influence of vegetation and erosion on the weathering of rocks to be determined with geochemical precision.

His most cited publication (approx. 1700 citations) includes a tectonic model of the development of collision mountains based on the genesis of plutons.

Cosmogenic nuclides

Friedhelm von Blanckenburgs first work on cosmogenic nuclides was done during his postdoctoral work at the University of Cambridge (1991-1996). This work gradually opened up completely new possibilities. From 1997, as a private lecturer in Bern, he significantly developed the method to measure 10beryllium isotopes in quartz minerals “in situ”. At that time, this method was still largely unknown. Devendra Lal, an Indian geophysicist, was the pioneer and had published his fundamental article on quantifying erosion rates using in situ 10beryllium isotopes only a few years earlier. Von Blanckenburg was involved in developing cosmogenic nuclides as a quantitative tracer of the Earth's surface practically from the beginning.

His work also helped geomorphology, especially in understanding the interactions between climate, tectonics, and erosion. Von Blanckenburg also developed paleo-ocean circulation models based on measurements of the ratio of cosmogenic 10beryllium isotopes to stable 9beryllium isotopes in iron-manganese crusts. 

Further scientific interests

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg's scientific interests went far beyond the geosciences. During his time as a professor in Hannover, he began to use iron isotopes for novel applications in the fields of medicine and plant ecology. For example, he explored iron isotopes in human blood with a colleague at ETH Zurich. In his work, for example, he was able to show for the first time that the isotope ratios of iron shift along the human food chain.

Commitment to the scientific community

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg was and is active in many committees: for five years he was spokesman for the “Helmholtz Topic Earth Surface and Climate” and was involved in the European Initial Training network IsoNose, among other things. He contributed his scientific expertise as editor-in-chief of the journal “Elements” (2016-2018) and as a member of the editorial board for the “American Journal of Science”. Today, as Vice-President (and President until 2022) of the German Mineralogical Society, he continues to play a key role in shaping its work.

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg played a key role in the “Leopoldina Future Report on Science: Earth System Science – Research for a Changing Earth”, which was published in 2022. Together with the three other main authors, he emphasised the need for change in many areas of Earth system science, such as the systemic view of the geosciences, big data and university teaching.

GFZ Scientific Director Susanne Buiter used this important impulse as an opportunity during her speech at the farewell colloquium to also emphasise “that one of the tasks of the next few years will be to achieve effective cooperation between the professional societies, the non-university research institutions and the universities and to arrive at a systemic view of the geosciences.”

A knack for public relations

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg was also highly committed whenever it was a matter of sharing scientific findings with the public and getting out there. He produced illustrative videos and even films on special scientific topics – with great success: his videos have reached a total of more than 100,000 clicks on YouTube.

Scientist in un-retirement

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg is leaving the GFZ with his retirement. He will nevertheless remain in science: He will continue the research within the framework of his DEVENDRA project, which has been funded with a highly endowed ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) since 2022, at the FU Berlin, remaining connected to the GFZ.

New section head

On 1 October 2023, Prof. Dr. Dirk Scherler has taken over the leadership of the Section “Earth Surface Geochemistry” on an interim basis. The geologist leads a working group in the section and holds a professorship for cosmogenic nuclides at the Freie Universität Berlin.


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