Exploring the German Arctic

Weekly Cover | It’s a warming world. Germany is drawing on decades of research to help understand how changing polar climates will affect us all

Elías Thórsson

Just south of Berlin nestled in a densely forested part of the city of Potsdam lies the Alfred Wegner Institute (AWI) for Polar and Marine Research, where scientists far removed from the ice and frost of the polar regions work to understand the changes currently taking place in the coldest regions of our planet.

The institute’s main offices are located in the western German town of Bremerhaven, where it was founded in 1980 when the then-Federal Republic of Germany signed the Antarctic treaty. AWI takes its name from the German polar researcher who is also considered to be the father of continental drift theory. Wagner tragically died while on a research expedition in Greenland in 1930, aged 50.

Following Germany’s unification in 1990 the AWI merged with the German Democratic Republic’s polar research centre, which was located in Potsdam.

“Here in Potsdam we have two things, castles and the highest density of scientists in Germany,” Bernhard Diekmann, a professor at the institute, jokes.

Diekman works in the institute’s periglacial research department and around his office are stacks upon stacks of meticulously piled research papers and fact sheets about the polar regions.

“Globally we have around 1,000 employees, but here in Potsdam there are 100 scientists and 50 students,” he says. “We work in an interdisciplinary manner and scientists with various scientific backgrounds work here, but our research here in Potsdam is especially focused on permafrost.”

The AWI runs four facilities in Germany and five permanent research stations in the polar regions, three in the Arctic, two in the Antarctic. Besides the permanent stations, it owns several research vessels, including its flagship icebreaker RV Polarstern.

It might seem odd that one the better equipped research departments studying the polar regions is located so far from either one of them, in the more temperate climates of central Germany, but Diekmann explains that this is testament to the global impact changes in the Arctic are having.

“We are living in a warming world, but what we have noticed in the last decade is that, while rising temperatures have stagnated globally, they have more than doubled in the Arctic. The Arctic is very important to ocean current patterns, so any change to the region could have a very direct impact on Germany.”

Diekmann describes how the northern hemisphere seems to be warming faster than the south, due probably to the different geological make up of the north, with is made up of more landmass and thus less ocean than the south.

Another reason why understanding changes to the Arctic is important for Germany is its impact on global weather and temperature.

“You remember last winter?” he asks. “Here in Europe it was quite temperate and warm, while in the US it was very nasty and cold, the year before this was just the opposite, and it seems that this might be being caused by changes in the Arctic and its impact on jet streams and polar vortexes. For instance, here in Germany spring started three weeks earlier, so there is a very strong argument for Germany to be interested in the region.”

Although the AWI has been conducting its research for over three decades, much of that work has gone relatively unnoticed outside of the scientific community, but in recent years this, like the Arctic, has been changing.

“Things have changed immensely over the last five to ten years, just someone doing a story about our work here is a case in point,” explains Professor Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten, head of AWI’s periglacial research department. “We have an outreach program, but we can also see that people are getting increasingly aware of the situation in the Arctic. Even Putin has become aware of the problem. In 2010 he visited our joint Russian station in Siberia and saw first-hand the effects of climate change. After the visit he promised to construct a new, improved research station, which he now has done.”

But it is not just foreign correspondents and world leaders that are starting to take note of the issues facing the Arctic; politicians within Germany and the EU are also starting to put the region on their agenda.

This, says Hubberten, can be seen in the EU’s PAGES21 project, which was started in 2011, and is the most ambitious research into the cause and effect of permafrost in history.

“The scientific community has managed to bring the importance of climate change to the attention of politicians, which is a big change from just a few years ago.”

But bringing the issue to the attention of elected officials is just the first step, he believes. Dealing with climate change is equally important, and Hubberten argues the way forward is more international co-operation.

“Currently most of the decision being made about the Arctic are taken by the Arctic Council members,” he says. “While it is understandable that they should have sovereignty over their resources, we need to understand that changes in the Arctic will have a global impact and therefore the decision-making should be done globally.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published with the permission of the author.

The Weekly Cover is The Rasmussen’s main story of the week. These articles will sometimes look ahead at one of the more important or interesting topics of the coming week, or they may provide insight and analysis about a current issue.

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