PRESS RELEASE | 02.08.2021

Mitigating climate change more effectively with oceans

First research mission of the German Marine Research Alliance studies oceans as carbon sinks

Berlin, Kiel, Warnemünde. The problem is well known: more and more carbon is entering the atmosphere due to human activities. And the atmosphere is heating up. The climate is changing and with it the living conditions on our planet. Oceans slow down this process. However, their uptake of heat and carbon dioxide is too slow to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – even allowing for ambitious climate policies and a drastic reduction in emissions. In the first research mission of the German Marine Research Alliance (DAM), which was launched at the beginning of August, some 200 researchers working on six collaborative projects are investigating how the effect of the ocean in slowing down and thus mitigating climate change can be boosted in the future.

The element carbon forms an unimaginable variety of compounds and it is the primary component of all life on Earth. Its distribution also determines the climate on our planet. When large amounts of carbon are bound inside the Earth or in the oceans, and only small quantities exist in the atmosphere in the form of gaseous carbon dioxide (CO2), Earth remains comparatively cool. The more carbon that enters the atmosphere, the warmer things get. Over the past 250 years, human beings have released huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The consequences of this can be felt and measured in the form of global warming.

Oceans as carbon sinks

Searching for ways of mitigating the increasingly drastic consequences of this man-made climate change, attention is increasingly being focused on the oceans. The first research mission of the DAM, which was founded in 2019 by the German federal government, the northern German states and marine research institutions, is dedicated to precisely this issue, a topic of huge relevance to society. Over the next three years, some 200 scientists will be investigating “Marine Carbon Sinks in Decarbonisation Pathways”, coordinated by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde (IOW). The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the research mission, providing 27 million euros over an initial period of three years.

Seas and oceans play a central role in global climate processes.
Seas and oceans play a central role in global climate processes. The first research mission of the DAM will now investigate how this can be used to slow down climate change. | Photo: Ralf Prien / IOW

“The oceans hold more than 50 times as much carbon as the atmosphere. So far, they have absorbed about a quarter of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, thereby mitigating the effect of climate change,” explains GEOMAR’s Andreas Oschlies, one of the mission’s spokespersons. “However, we are expecting the proportion of CO2 stored in the oceans to decrease as warming, acidification, decreasing oxygen levels and other human-induced disruptions impair the ocean’s physical, chemical and biological capacity to absorb carbon dioxide,” adds Gregor Rehder, from the IOW, the second spokesperson for the research mission.

Contributing to meeting the Paris climate goals

Both scientists emphasise that the most important and urgent measure to prevent further global warming is to comprehensively reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. “There’s no way around it,” says Andreas Oschlies. “However, all scenarios in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change include the need to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in addition to reducing emissions, in order to meet the 1.5-degree target,” adds Gregor Rehder.

Currently, such proposals focus primarily on land-based methods. However, land-based methods are unlikely to be sufficient to meet the agreed Paris climate goals, in view of strong competition from food and energy production on land. This is why ocean-based options are increasingly being explored. Existing knowledge as to how oceans can be used to remove carbon is limited. In the DAM research mission which is now starting, scientists from 21 research institutions, universities and companies will investigate how and to what extent oceans can play a sustainable role in capturing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere and thus contribute to keeping climate change within the limits set by the Paris Agreement.

In sealed experimental tanks like these Kiel offshore mesocosms, the research mission is investigating various methods of boosting carbon uptake by the ocean. | Photo: Michael Sswat/GEOMAR

Knowledge for making decisions

“Being closely linked to climate protection, this first DAM research mission is extremely relevant to society and the policy-makers who will decide on effective measures and climate policy,” explains Michael Bruno Klein, chairman of the DAM board. “Using science to make provisions for the future is exactly the purpose for which the DAM was established. We have made it our central task to strengthen our member institutions’ solution-oriented research and to develop a knowledge base for action, in a dialogue with stakeholders, which can be used for decision-making. The goal is to ensure that research findings have an effect.”

“As part of the research mission, we will provide concrete potential courses of action, implement knowledge transfer measures, get stakeholders involved and communicate transparently,” Andreas Oschlies affirms. The research mission will thus provide important decision-making aids for continuing to develop Germany’s climate strategy.

The research mission consists of six consortia

Six consortia will study different methods of marine carbon dioxide removal and storage, looking at their potential, risks, and possible side effects, as well as identifying their impact on the marine environment, the Earth system and society, and bringing them together in a transdisciplinary assessment framework.

ASMASYS will bring together knowledge about marine options for actively reducing atmospheric CO2 and will draw up a unified framework for assessing the different approaches. In addition to scientific principles and questions of technical feasibility, legal, social and ethical aspects will be taken into account, as well as the political framework (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Gregor Rehder, IOW).

RETAKE will investigate whether, and in what form, increasing marine alkalinity can be a viable means of permanently removing significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere in an environmentally and socially responsible manner (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Andreas Oschlies, GEOMAR).

sea4soCiety will focus on storing carbon in vegetation-rich coastal ecosystems. Innovative approaches will be developed to enhance this natural potential for carbon storage, taking into account other uses by society, as well as potential risks (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Martin Zimmer, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research – ZMT).

GEOSTOR will explore the potential offered by storing CO2 underground in sandstone formations beneath the North Sea. The goal is to quantify the storage capacities available in the German North Sea and to analyse the risks and opportunities associated with the process (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Klaus Wallmann, GEOMAR).

Test-ArtUp will investigate whether and how upwelling of nutrient-rich deep water can promote plankton growth near the surface and thus sequester more carbon from the atmosphere (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Ulf Riebesell, GEOMAR).

AIMS³ will investigate the extent to which CO2 can be stored permanently in the basaltic upper ocean crust in the form of carbonates. Studies of natural systems along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge will be flanked by planned laboratory experiments. Innovative monitoring systems are to monitor environmental impacts (Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Achim Kopf, MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen).

“Both the European Commission and the German government have set the target of becoming ‘greenhouse gas neutral by 2050’. If we want to achieve this, we need to take ambitious and effective action now,” stresses Gregor Rehder, spokesman for the research mission. “The oceans can also help us do this.” His colleague Andreas Oschlies adds, “All the projects will make an important contribution to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The goal of the Decade is to find international solutions for protecting the oceans and using them sustainably.”

Links: Website of the research mission

Press photos for editorial coverage can be downloaded here

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Header image: In various mesocosm experiments, the RETAKE and Test-ArtUp consortia are looking at the feasibility and potential, but also the environmental risks of the tested methods for boosting carbon uptake by the ocean. Photo: U. Riebesell/GEOMAR

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