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Oceans in Climate Change

An Interview with Prof. Dr. Angelika Brandt


About 70 percent of our planet is covered by seas, which are thus the largest living space on earth. Our oceans have an enormous influence on the climate, the metabolic cycles and therefore our daily environment! Reports such as the IPCC Special Report, the IPBES Global Assessment 2019, and reports from numerous other institutions show how alarming the state of the oceans on our earth is. The consequences of global warming are serious for the marine world and hence also for us. In addition, plastic pollution and acidification are changing the oceans.

In 2020, Senckenberg aims to answer fundamental questions: What impact does climate change have on marine life? How is humanity changing the oceans and how are oceans changing our actions and our future? As a part of the “Project Senckenberg – New Museum”, the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research is expanding its natural science museum in Frankfurt. Already this year, all kinds of interesting facts about aquatic habitats will be presented in the newly created “Marine Research” room and Senckenberg scientists can be accompanied on their exciting expeditions there.

Since it was founded, Senckenberg has been one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to researching biodiversity and describing previously undiscovered species in our oceans. Types of species and other material to document the variability of species are stored in the Senckenberg collections. However, the collections are not just archives – they provide important data, spatial and temporal information on the occurrence of certain organisms, their ecosystem functions, and interactions on environmental conditions. This data provides a basis for potential predictions of species behavior in response to climate or other man-made changes.

PM Tiefsee 3.9.2019
With every sample from the deep sea, unknown species raise to the surface. Here is a new species of marine isopod from the Ischnomesidae family from the Vema fracture zone in the North Atlantic.

Ms. Brandt, you have been studying our oceans for over thirty years. What do you find so fascinating about them?

I am fascinated by the rich biodiversity and the relative lack of exploration at the same time. The seas and especially the deep sea contain an enormous number of previously unknown species. We try to describe the patterns of their distribution and to understand the functions of biodiversity in order to provide help to ecosystems and options for politics and society.

Is there a special moment in your academic or professional career to which you can pinpoint your passion for marine and deep-sea research?

No! Even as a child I preferred to have my head under rather than over water. Seawater aquariums and underwater films by Jacques Yves Cousteau awakened my dream of learning to dive very early on in my life. In 1984, I finished my diver-training for researchers and during my first expedition in 1989, I dove in front of the Brazilian station Estação Antártica Comandante Ferraz on King George Island in the Admiralty Bay to collect samples and carry out long-term ecological experiments.

What projects are you currently working on? What Citizen Science Projects are particularly close to your heart?

We are currently working on projects in the Northwest Pacific, one of the most productive and biodiverse regions in the ocean world. Our extensive deep-sea analysis in the Abyssal and Hadal over the past decade were based on four international expeditions around the Sea of ​​Japan, the Sea of ​​Okhotsk and the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench. These expeditions had a strong scientific impact on our knowledge of the benthic (bottom-living) fauna in this area. The result of this multi-national and interdisciplinary collaboration were 137 publications, which were published in four separate volumes. This collection-based study included the inventory of the fauna in this area and answered important biogeographical and evolutionary questions, such as the isolation effect of deep-sea trenches for the abyssal fauna.

We also analyzed environmental factors that control biodiversity in this area. Our research represents a major advance in the systemic understanding of biodiversity and the interactions between geosphere and biosphere in this area. Using this as a basis, we carried out a comprehensive digitization of data and entered data (into international databases such as OBIS (Ocean Biogeographic Information System)) on the occurence of species and examined the endemism rate and the composition of marine species in the Northwest Pacific and the adjacent Arctic Ocean. This unique data set is the most extensive ever collected for this area. It identifies common key species which have the potential to become future invaders of the Arctic Ocean as a result of the rapid reduction in sea ice in the Arctic. These results are fundamental baseline studies to predict future invasions of marine species affected by rapid climate change and anthropogenic activities in order to better monitor the effects of such changes in the ocean.

In addition to this faunistic work, we are currently working on the microplastics of the abyssal and hadal sediments in cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute on Heligoland. Furthermore, we carry out research work in the Antarctic and analyze the influence of the breakup of the ice shelves on the fauna communities as well as latitudinal and longitudinal gradients in the Wedell Sea and the Scotia Sea. Citizen Science Projects in the Marine Zoology Department are primarily focused on sorting work and assistance with the incorporation and digitization of collection objects.

PM Biodiversität unter Druck 23.01.2020
Young emperor penguins in the Atka Bay near the Neumayer polar research station. The habitat of this largest penguin species, the pack ice of the Southern Ocean, is particularly badly affected by environmental changes.

Already in 2009, alarming figures about the state of our global ecosystems – including those of the oceans – were published on the basis of the “planetary boundaries” published by Johann Röckstrom. How are our oceans today?

They are not better, because the seas suffer from pollution, eutrophication, and ocean acidification. The polar ecosystems are subject to drastic change due to the melting of ice shelves and large areas of sea ice due to the climate, processes that lead to sea level rises. People, who live on the coast, will lose their habitat in the coming decades. The increase in population leads to, among other things, increases in pollution and littering of the seas, artificially created land use by man, coastal development, ocean pollution (e.g. from wind parks, oil platforms, desalination plants, etc.), and increases in marine traffic routes (marine noise) places great stress on the flora and fauna of the sea.

What are the most pressing questions that marine research must address in the coming years?

Sea level rise, ocean warming and threats to corals, marine pollution and eutrophication, as well as ocean acidification.

For this reason, the General Assembly of the United Nations has declared the period 2021 to 2030 to be the UN Decade of Ocean Research for Sustainable Development, and has commissioned UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) to implement it. Germany has offered to host the kick-off conference for the decade in Berlin at the beginning of 2021. Due to this generous offer, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, in exchange with the Konsortium Deutsche Meeresforschung (KDM) (German Marine Research Consortium), would like to ensure that German marine science expertise is as excellent as possible and actively integrated into the design of the kick-off event.

IOC-UNESCO presented a total of six societal needs and eight scientific priorities for the decade. I was deployed for the “clean oceans” area for this kick-off event.

The Deutsche Allianz Meeresforschung (DAM) (German Alliance for Marine Research) was founded on July 4th, 2019. How do you rate this political approach to marine research and where do you see further political trade needs in relation to marine protection (in Germany and worldwide)?

The DAM is a legal association and is locateded in Berlin. Use and protection of marine areas are some of the most important topics of the DAM. The aim of the research mission is to develop concepts for the “common good-oriented, prosperity-securing, and at the same time environmentally friendly, use of marine and coastal areas.” The 14th Aichi goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations contributes to this: “Oceans, seas, and marine resources should be preserved and used sustainably in the interests of sustainable development.”

Using these goals, German marine research is currently recording the effects of our current and possible future use of biodiversity, and the integrity of marine ecosystems along the German and a few international coasts. Furthermore, the effects of different protection concepts and their implementation and success rate are being analyzed. Science works on these issues in dialogue with users from business, administration and civil society in order to be able to give recommendations for action as well as specific institutional and technological innovations for sustainable use and protection of the marine environment.

The DAM is entering the first phase with two major missions:

1. “Protection and sustainable use of the seas”. The mission was written by U. Bathmann, K.-C.- Emeis, K. Eskildsen, A. Freiwald, M. Haeckel, H. Hillebrand, S. Horn, A.-K. Hornidge, U. Jacob, K. Juergens, A. Merico, J.O. Schmidt, C. Schrum.

2. “Marine carbon storage as a contribution to decarbonization”, written by A. Oschlies, G. Rehder and M. Rhein.

The Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum is, together with Senckenberg am Meer, the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and the Thünen Institute for Sea Fisheries (TI SF) in Bremerhaven, Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity at the University Oldenburg (HIFMB) and the Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment of ​​the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg (ICBM) in Oldenburg, the Helmholtz Center Geesthacht (HZG), involved in a DAM pilot project. The project analyzes the exclusion of mobile bottom-contacting fishing in marine protected areas of the German exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the North Sea. It elaborates a description of the state of the sediment structures and describes bentho-pelagic habitats and biocenoses.

SBiKF_NWG_Warren_Korallenriff Sinai
As “rainforests of the seas”, coral reefs represent the most species-rich ecosystem in the marine area.

In the 14th UN Sustainability Goal and in the 11th Biodiversity Convention it was stated that by 2020 around 10 percent of the world’s ocean should be effectively and actively protected. According to the WWF report from September 2019, these goals for the protection of marine biodiversity were not met. How do you explain the failure of the goals and where is urgent improvement needed?

To be honest, I cannot explain that exactly, as this has multifactorial causes that can also influence each other. Climate-related and anthropogenic changes cannot always be clearly separated. The failure of the goals is definitely also due to the fact that science and politics sometimes speak different languages, it is sometimes not easy to find scientific explanations for changes and/or to convey options for politics and society.  The implementation of scientific recommendations in protection concepts is sometimes sluggish because it often requires coordination between international consortia or nature conservation organizations (e.g. CCAMLR, ATCM, CBD, IOC, UNESCO, etc.).

As an individual, what can I do to protect the oceans or improve their current state? Are there any particularly favored projects that you should support?

We need to raise our awareness that we are only a part of biodiversity and that we are dependent on terrestrial and marine biodiversity. We don’t have to learn to simply use the sea and its underwater world. If we do, it has to be sustainable, and we have to compensate for our influence which we enact onto it. We should stop polluting the seas and collect trash on the beach instead of leaving our own behind.

DZMB Forschungsflotte
Senckenberg has been the proprietor and shipowner of its own research cutter (F. K. “SENCKENBERG”) since 1976. Find out more Senckenberg’s research vessels here.

In which areas does Senckenberg contribute to global marine research and how can our research serve to preserve and save the world’s oceans?

Senckenberg has been one of the world’s leading natural history museums since it was founded, dedicated to researching biodiversity and describing unknown species in the world’s oceans. Since its establishment, the types of species and other material documenting the variability of species have been stored in the scientific collections. In the early years, the focus was particularly on the North Sea, the Red Sea, and the Arab region. Later, other marine regions and, more recently, analyses of various deep-sea regions were added.

The scientific collections are not just archives of species; they also provide biogeographical data, i.e. information on the occurrence of certain organisms at a certain point in time at a certain place, on genetic and phylogenetic relationships, on characteristics and possible ecosystem functions, on biotic interactions and on environmental conditions. For example, the scientific collections can serve as an excellent basis for biogeographical analyses and analyses of area shifts. They have the potential to predict climate-related or anthropogenic changes in species distribution. In this context, the individuals of the species in the scientific collections serve as a unique identifier because they connect different disciplines.

Furthermore, they also provide important data points for the parameterization and validation of models. In addition to fossil documents, scientific collections offer the only available basis for the analysis of the biodiversity of past epochs and explain the changes over time in the context of the evolutionary process. Collections document and preserve irreplaceable data about nature for future generations. Without this scientific heritage, a large number of our interdisciplinary research at Senckenberg (e.g. systematics, phylogenetic analyzes and evolution research, ecology, nature conservation) could not be carried out.

Marine Evertebraten II Übersicht GlyceridaeGlyceatridactyla
From the Senckenberg collections: Glyceridae tridactyla.

Watchlist Organisations and Institutions

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International

Projects that are close to our researchers’ hearts

  • MARSAMM-Project: Historical collections of marine organisms – a window to the beginnings of global change in the North and Baltic Seas
  • DAM-Pilot-Project: Exclusion of mobile bottom-contact fishing in marine protected areas of the German EEZ of the North Sea – description of the state of sediment structures, benthopelagic habitats and biocenoses (MGF North Sea).
  • DFG-Proposal: The role of hadal zones in the long-term fate of marine microplastics: Identification of microplastics in the deep sea of the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench, Northwest Pacific (Deep-MiPoll)
  • BMBF: Biogeography of the northwest Pacific fauna. A benchmark study for estimations of alien invasions into the Arctic Ocean in times of rapid climate chance
  • SponGES, Spongedeep: international research projects on environmental and protective aspects of deep sea and sponge deep sea reefs