Research & Life in the coastal region
They take water samples and measure wave heights. They equip satellites and install radar. They measure the seafloor and model the coastal region. They interview citizens living on the coast and advise government agencies as well as the public: these are the coastal researchers at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.
The more than 250 specialists at the Institute of Coastal Research possess backgrounds in the most varying fields, including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, oceanography, meteorology and other geosciences. The Science Year 2016*17 – Seas and Oceans is stepping up its activities, drawing these regions more into public focus.
The MS Wissenschaft presents marine reseach on the ship. On board also were exhibits from the Helmholtz-Centre Geesthacht. Photo: Ilja C. Hendel
Science Years have been promoted annually since the year 2000 by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) together with Science in Dialogue (WiD). Each year the topic of focus changes. Science Years are dedicated to themes that are societally relevant for the future. The future of the seas and oceans as well as the coastal regions certainly rank among these topics.
Motivation and fascination
"Due to its location between land and sea, the coastal region affects numerous processes." - Prof Dr Burkard Baschek. Photo: Helmholtz/ Blacha
The coastal region. This includes not only areas where land is influenced by the sea but also where the sea is influenced by the land. The two regions, which are utilised differently and provide fascinatingly diverse living environments, however, form one whole. What is so interesting about this area that a research field has been specifically dedicated to studying the coasts?
The director of “Operational Systems” at the Institute of Coastal Research, Prof Burkard Baschek, says, “Our planet is covered 70 per cent by water, and the seas form the largest habitat on Earth. Every second person on the planet lives on the coast or within 100 kilometres of the sea now. This area between land and sea influences numerous global processes, which affect the carbon cycle, oxygen production, and atmospheric transportation processes. That is extremely exciting for us scientists.” Baschek also comments on the aspect of size: The overall length of the global coastlines on all continents and islands is one million kilometres. It’s a very large research area that still holds quite some secrets.
The coastal regions and seas provide a space for nature and culture
At the beginning of the science year, the zeppelin for the “Expedition Clockwork Ocean” took off in Berlin. Numerous media representatives were drawn to the topic and reported on the research expedition. Photo: HZG/ David Ausserhofer
Human beings use this environment for tourism, fishing, offshore wind parks and intensive agriculture. Human influence on sensitive ecosystems such as the Wadden Sea, estuaries or coastal seas is becoming quickly noticeable. Protecting the coasts and utilising these regions with the future in mind is the subject of research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.
What does this mean in terms of work at the institute?
"We must understand that it is all one “coastal system” and that it’s not enough to simply consider one single component." - Prof Dr Corinna Schrum. Photo: Helmholtz/ Blacha
“We must understand that it is all one ‘coastal system’ and that it’s not enough to simply consider one single component,” says Prof Corinna Schrum, Director of “System Analysis and Modelling” at the Institute of Coastal Research. It is rather a continuous interaction of numerous physical, biogeochemical and biological processes.
Schrum expands, “In addition to marine and atmospheric processes, the processes related to the land, such as riverine inputs, are very important. Furthermore, this region is heavily utilised by humans. Human influence, therefore, cannot be separated from natural conditions.”
In order to understand all these processes and influential aspects, the coastal researchers utilise sophisticated measuring networks. Methods employed include the most modern laboratory technology, satellites, research vessels and diving robots.
Prof Kay-Christian Emeis, third director and head of “Biogeochemistry in the Coastal Seas”, says, “Look at our coastal observation system COSYNA. COSYNA uses the most diverse platforms to measure physical or biogeochemical properties such as temperature, salinity and sea state as well as nutrients and exchange processes between the water and the underlying seafloor.”
Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas. It is COSYNA’s mission to develop and operate an integrated observing and modelling system suitable for investigating the environmental state and variability of coastal areas, with a focus on the North Sea and Arctic coastal waters. More about COSYNA
“Research at sea” is the open ship of our research vessel “Ludwig Prandtl”. Once a year, our scientists present their work at harbours along the German coast. Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
The data from these measurement networks is integrated into extensive computer simulations. The aim is to obtain a detailed model of the coastal system as a whole, including all interactions between the sea, land, air and humans. This way we can satisfy long-term research efforts to understand the coastal system as a whole and beyond the limitations of individual physical, chemical or biological aspects. Emeis also points out, “In view of progressive climate change and increasing rise in pressure due to utilisation of the sea, the idea is to redefine the concept of the coast.”
Corinna Schrum adds, “On the other hand, we are trying to make short-term predictions on how the currents develop in the next six or twelve hours. We also want to look farther into the future with prognoses on, for example, storm activity in the coastal regions.”
Looking to the future coasts helps us make decisions
"In the face of advancing environmental change and increasing pressure caused by utilisation of the seas, it is necessary to redefine the concept of the coasts." - Prof Dr Kay-Christian Emeis. Photo: HZG/ Ina Frings
Kay Emeis says, “One example of how our research is utilised is by the offshore wind farm industry. We offer them products that are vital for planning. If we look at statistics from prior decades, what could we learn for the future? What weather windows do we have to install wind farms or to perform maintenance? Model statistics from the past, such as from CoastDat, are of great interest to users. In addition, what is the long-term wind park potential during the course of climate change and how does this influence the coast?”
Engaging in discourse and stirring the imagination
The glimpse into the future is of great interest to people as is current sea and coastal conditions. The public took notice of coastal research activities such as “Expedition Clockwork Ocean“ and “Forschung vor Anker“ (Research at Sea). The Geesthacht coastal research expedition kicked off at the end of June, right at the start of the Year of Science.
This expedition enabled a zeppelin with high-tech equipment on board to detect small ocean eddies in the Baltic Sea. Interested spectators could often follow researchers live as they worked. The level of interest was phenomenal. The analysis of the results remains on-going, but the scientists appear to have reached an audience of 150 million through the Internet, newspapers and radio broadcasts.
At School events, science nights and on public holidays: Motivated coastal researchers present their work to the people. Photo: HZG/ Torsten Fischer
The public is also very fond of activities on a smaller scale, such as the “Research at Sea” tour, which takes place annually at different harbours on the North and Baltic Seas. Numerous visitors learned more about the scientific work during the “Open Ship“ this year in Wismar, Heiligenhafen and Rendsburg. The crew and the Geesthacht scientists were available on-board the vessel to discuss their research. The Institute of Coastal Research has been virtually presenting their endeavours with text and images to the public for several years now on the blog “Coastal Research”. The scientists and their work are displayed on this site. Of course, the coastal researchers’ commitment doesn’t end in 2017: They will continue their research into the seas and coasts. In this regard, the three directors of the Institute of Coastal Research are of one mind:
"The coasts are facing enormous challenges due to increasing population size and to climate change. We need to understand the coasts as a focal point as well as the role of the “global coasts” for the Earth system in order to facilitate sustainable utilisation."
Published in in2science #3 (January 2017)