40 Jahre AWI Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung. Ein Forschungsflugzeug fliegt über der Arktis.
NEWS | 14.07.2020

Celebrating 40 Years of the Alfred Wegener Institute

Unique infrastructure and scientific excellence are the hallmarks of the AWI

40 years of research in the Arctic, Antarctic and in coastal regions: on 15 July, the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), celebrates its 40th anniversary. With its innovative science and excellent research infrastructure, the AWI, which is a member of the German Marine Research Alliance (Deutsche Allianz Meeresforschung, DAM),  has become a global leader and internationally recognised centre for climate research in the two polar regions and the world’s oceans.

Cutting-edge research on sea ice, the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans and their ecosystems, the North Sea and its Wadden Sea, the deep sea, the glaciers of Iceland and the Antarctic, the polar atmosphere, permafrost regions, climate history and the future of our planet are what set the Alfred Wegener Institute apart. Other hallmarks include its strong international network and wide range of scientific expertise. The bio-, geo- and climate sciences work closely together to address pressing climate issues. Today, the AWI is home to more than 1200 employees.

Maintaining an Antarctic station  

The AWI was created on 15th July 1980 as the “Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar Research” foundation, a step that followed on the Federal Republic of Germany’s geostrategic decision in 1979 to sign the international Antarctic Treaty of 1959. Two years later, it became one of the consultative parties to the Treaty. The prerequisite for doing so was to conduct year-round research activities in the Antarctic, which led to further milestones for the institute: on 3rd March 1981, the Georg von Neumayer Station officially opened in the Antarctic. Just one year later, the research icebreaker Polarstern went into service.

40 years AWI Center for Polar and Marine Research. Neumayer Station II in Antarctica with moon
Neumayer Station II in Antarctica | Picture: AWI / Nora Graser

The first director of the new research institute was Professor Gotthilf Hempel. He still looks back proudly on the developments: “The AWI was primarily founded to support the Antarctic station and the Polarstern. 40 years later it has become the most important marine-oriented institute for polar research in the world. Intensive European and global collaborations have been the most important key to this success.”

Extending the spectrum of research

In 1986, the AWI merged with the Institute for Marine Research in Bremerhaven, broadening its research focus to include investigations into other ocean regions, and changing its name to the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. In 1992, with the branch office in Potsdam, the former GDR’s polar research was integrated into the AWI, bringing, among other things, expertise in the field of terrestrial polar research. In 1998 the Biologische Institute Helgoland (BAH) and the Wadden Sea Station Sylt also joined. Their extensive coastal research know-how perfectly complements the AWI’s research profile. In 2017, the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity (HIFMB), based in Oldenburg, became the newest addition.

“The Alfred Wegener Institute can look back on a highly successful history. We’re working hard to ensure that in the coming years the institute’s research and infrastructure remain exemplary – because the AWI’s research provides essential information and insights for civil society, a responsibility that we take very seriously,” says AWI Administrative Director Dr Karsten Wurr.

An Arctic expedition that’s already making history 

As the institute has developed, the importance of the polar regions for the global climate has moved further into the spotlight. Today, the AWI is an internationally respected competence centre for polar and marine research and one of the few scientific institutions in the world that are equally active in the Arctic and Antarctic. One of the Alfred Wegener Institute’s main goals is to gain a better understanding of the Earth’s climate processes, particularly from a polar perspective. Another is to investigate the future of coasts as dynamic spaces for nature, humans and technology to interact. In order to gather important data for future climate models, in September 2019, MOSAiC – the greatest Arctic expedition in the history of the institute – was launched: for an entire year, scientists from 20 nations are studying the Arctic. On 12th October 2020, this historic expedition will come to an end, constituting a further milestone in the history of the AWI.

40 years AWI Center for Polar and Marine Research. The Polarstern on the MOSAiC floe in the Central Arctic
Polarstern has arrived at MOSAiC ice floe, October 5, 2019 | Picture: AWI / Sebastian Grote

“I find it very fitting that in the year of its 40th birthday, the AWI has prepared this major international North Pole expedition, MOSAiC. The mission and our 40-year history stand for international cooperation, open knowledge sharing and adopting a polar perspective on the Earth’s climate. These are important messages in such difficult times. For the AWI’s future, I hope that the often-surprising findings from our polar, marine and coastal research will be directly and consistently integrated into social decisions. And that we can put the new Polarstern into service by 2027,” says AWI Director Prof Antje Boetius.

Timeline: 40 years of the AWI 

Archivist Dr Christian Salewski has prepared a chronicle of the institute’s history, which can be viewed online. It provides not only an overview of the AWI’s first 40 years, but also positions the institute in the history of polar research: beginning with the 16th century, the chronicle traces the history of polar research up to 2017, with a particular focus on highlights in the AWI’s first 40 years.

The AWI will celebrate this milestone with an anniversary year, various digital products and a film of the institute’s history.


Marlena Witte
Communications and Media Relations | Staff Units
Phone: 0471 4831-1539
Email: medien(at)awi.de

Photos: AWI / Esther Horvath, Nora Graser and Sebastian Grote


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