Humanity depends on space, resources and the vital functions provided by planet Earth. However, mankind with its undertakings and economic activities are increasingly exploiting this foundation of existence and, at the same time, using it as a wild waste disposal site for pollutants and greenhouse gases. Climate change, species extinction, environmental pollution and natural disasters caused by geological risks are among the greatest challenges of our time.
These global processes of change call for urgent action. Creating the grounds for this is an important task of science. We must better understand planet Earth as a dynamic and highly sensitive system and we must make this knowledge available. In addition, we need to create applicable know-how to enable predictions and pave the way for a sustainable future with innovative technologies, strategic approaches and options for action for society, the economy and politics.
To meet these complex and interdisciplinary challenges, seven centres of the Helmholtz Association have joined forces. In the Helmholtz Research Field "Earth & Environment", we pool our expertise in the joint Research Programme "Changing Earth – Sustaining our Future". It is part of the Helmholtz Association's programme-oriented funding. Using a systemic approach, we research our natural foundations of life extending from the Earth’s surface and the oceans to the remotest polar regions and from the deep interior of planet Earth to the atmosphere.
The research programme is organised into nine themes and numerous cross-cutting activities and alliances. Our goal is to bundle the resulting knowledge and to promote cooperation between the Helmholtz Centres and with national and international partners. This includes the coordinated use and further development of our globally unique facilities for laboratory and field research, Earth observation as well as computer and data science. To ensure that the results from research can be disseminated into the public realm and can influence societal developments, a Synthesis and Communication Platform has been established. This is geared towards dialogue from the very start: societal concerns should likewise be transported into research.
Five of the nine topics are relevant for our research at the GFZ, and our Research Centre is responsible for the coordination of two of these topics. As the National Research Centre for Solid Earth Sciences, we contribute our expertise and infrastructure from geodesy, geophysics, geology, mineralogy, geochemistry, physics, geomorphology, geosciences, mathematics and engineering, which are organised in four departments.
Topic 1 "The Atmosphere in Global Change" │ GFZ-Participation
The atmosphere safeguards the Earth from harmful radiation, regulates temperature differences and circulates thermal energy, water and pollutants: almost all life depends on this delicate protective layer. We monitor atmospheric phenomena and processes from their origin up to their impacts on climate change in order to better understand and predict trends. The focus: research on air quality, on feedback effects in the climate system and on future weather and extreme events.
Topic 2 "Oceans and Cryosphere in Climate Change" │ GFZ-Participation
The oceans and the snow and ice regions of the Earth play an important role in the complex climate system. However, important data is lacking, especially from the deeper ocean layers and from the polar regions. With new observation systems and methods for data analysis and modelling, we aim to clarify how the oceans and cryosphere influence climate and how they react to global warming, for example with regard to temperature distribution, carbon storage, nutrient cycles, sea level rise or the expansion of sea ice.
Topic 3 "Living on a Restless Earth: Towards Forecasting Geohazards" │ GFZ-Coordination
Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or landslides endanger billions of people worldwide. Only if we know more about the underlying physical processes can the effects be minimised. To this end, we aim to develop the next generation of Earth observation systems on the one hand, and innovative systems for modelling and reliably interpretation of the data obtained on the other. In this way, long-term hazard assessment will be possible and particularly threatening geohazards will become more predictable in the short term.
Topic 4 "Coastal Transition Zones under Natural and Human Pressure" │ hereon-Coordination
During the next 50 years, well over half of the world's population is expected to live in coastal regions. Climate change is adding to the pressure on these complex living and economic spaces. Our goal is to better understand these areas and to preserve their diverse functionalities – including their role as a source of food and biodiversity – in the long term. For the development of sustainable coastal use and protection scenarios, we pursue a systemic approach that brings together natural and social sciences.
Topic 5 "Landscapes of the Future" │ GFZ-Participation
Landscapes have to meet a wide variety of demands: They should provide fresh water, food and habitats, but also be functioning ecosystems with intact biodiversity. Our research aims to show ways in which multifunctional landscapes can exist in a balance of human influence and natural dynamics - despite population growth and resource hunger. To this end, we are developing field experiments, observation networks and prediction models of the latest generation.
Topic 6 "Marine and Polar Life: Sustaining Biodiversity, Biotic Interactions and Biogeochemical Functions" │ GEOMAR-Coordination
Oceans cover around seventy per cent of the Earth. Yet only 13 per cent of this vast area is still considered pristine. Shipping, fishing, pollution, climate change and rising CO2 levels have serious impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, including their role as CO2 sinks and food sources. For a sustainable management of the oceans, we research the diversity, function and structure of marine ecosystems, how they respond to these pressures and what options are available to mitigate human impacts.
Topic 7 "Towards a Sustainable Bioeconomy – Recources, Utilization, Engineering and AgroEcosystems" │ FZJ-Coordination
The bioeconomy can help to supply the growing world population with food and renewable raw materials for industry. We research how plant yields can be increased even with little fertiliser and water, we develop biotechnological processes for processing raw materials and we investigate approaches to minimise the ecological footprint – through careful treatment of raw materials and products as well as material or energy recycling.
Topic 8 "Georesources for the Energy Transition and a High-Tech Society" │ GFZ-Coordination
With a growing world population, the demand for energy and raw materials is also rising. The continued strong dependence on fossil fuels and the increasingly costly access to many geo resources are major challenges. We create the scientific basis for access to safe, clean energy and the raw materials needed for our 21st century infrastructures. This also includes supporting a growing circular economy.
Topic 9 "One Healthy Planet" │ UFZ-Coordination
We carry out research for a healthy environment. Many individuals are exposed to chemical and environmental influences all their lives: for example, through the air, in water or in food. We develop new approaches for the predictive risk assessment of such chemicals and the evaluation of environmental quality. To this end, we research how chemicals change and decompose in the environment or in humans, which substances are particularly long-lived and how the simultaneous presence of a wide variety of chemicals affects the threat to mankind and to the environment.
Research Infrastructures - "Modular Earth Science Infrastructure" │ GFZ
The Modular Earth Science Infrastructure (MESI) of GFZ comprises operational services and ground segments for satellite missions, globally distributed observational facilities for seismology, gravity and the magnetic field, state-of-the-art instrument pools, specialized analytical laboratories, data centers, and a wide range of service products. Read more
Knowledge Transfer "Synthesis and Communication Platform SynCom" │All Helmholtz-Centres
The transfer of knowledge to society is a central goal of the programme “Changing Earth – Sustaining our Future”. We can only shape the future if our results find their way into politics and the economy and into society. Major societal questions, in turn, can only be answered across disciplines. Therefore, the synthesis of knowledge, placing it in context and its communication are integral parts of the programme, bundled in the SynCom platform.