Alfred Wegener Institute

The centre of Germany’s Antarctic research

As the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, the Alfred Wegener Institute is primarily active in the cold and temperate regions of the world, but also in the North Sea and Germany’s coastal regions. It coordinates Germany’s polar research and cooperates with numerous national and international partners. Planet Earth is undergoing radical climate change. The polar regions and the oceans are changing. At the same time, they play a key role in the global climate system. Against this backdrop, the primary goal is to unravel the complex processes in “System Earth”. On the one hand polar regions react extremely sensitively to climate change, on the other hand they are themselves among the crucial factors influencing the global climate. With its many years of expertise, the AWI explores practically all areas of the Earth system – from the atmosphere to the sea bed. Its scientific activity is increasingly focusing on understanding the changes in the Earth’s climate. Strong integration in international networks and a broad scientific basis characterise the research work of the institute, where biologists, geologists and climate scientists all work together closely. Field research under extreme conditions is as much a part of the daily routine at the AWI as working with cutting-edge laboratory equipment and powerful supercomputers. Because polar and marine research is also a logistical challenge, the institute has an excellent infrastructure, which it makes available for national and international research. This infrastructure comprises several research vessels, research aircraft and research stations in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Research on stilts

The showcase of Antarctic research is the Neumayer Station III, which was built on hydraulic supports. Up to 50 people live and work there during the Antarctic summer. In winter it is more deserted, with only a cook, three engineers, a doctor and four scientists remaining. They form the so-called overwintering team. For a few years now, the remote-controlled penguin observatory SPOT has been situated close to the station, right on the edge of the ice shelf. It records images and videos of the movements of emperor penguins. This enables scientists to observe how individual penguins behave within the colony and how the group functions as a whole. SPOT makes it possible to observe the penguins  natural behaviour during the breeding season on the sea ice without disturbing or influencing them.

Kohnen Station

Within the context of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) the AWI established the Kohnen Station in 2001 as a logistical base for ice drilling during the Antarctic summer. It is named after Heinz Kohnen (1938–1997), who headed the AWI’s logistics department for many years. The ice cores drilled at Kohnen Station provide comprehensive data on climate-related and atmospheric changes over the last 215,000 years, for example in connection with greenhouse gases, aerosols and radionuclides from space. From 1993 to 2021, together with the Argentine Instituto Antártico Argentino, the AWI also operated the Dallmann Laboratory on King George Island, named after German explorer and polar researcher Eduard Dallmann (1830-1896). From the start, long-term monitoring of temperature development and glacier shrinkage was undertaken alongside biological explorations on land and at sea. The laboratory is now part of the Argentine Antarctic station Carlini and continues to provide accommodation for up to twelve scientists during the summer in the southern hemisphere, in one of the few partially ice-free areas of Antarctica. 

Expertise and technological know-how

It is also the task of the AWI experts to advise politicians and society at both national and international level. Senior researchers contributed and had leading roles in several IPCC Assessment Reports, among other things. AWI scientists also provided the scientific basis for the marine protected area proposal in the Weddell Sea. Research into polar and marine regions always goes hand in hand with the development of technological innovations. At the AWI, new products and services take shape through technology transfer. By the way, the institute was named after Alfred Wegener, the German polar researcher and discoverer of continental drift, and was founded with just a few staff in 1980. Today it employs more than 1000 people. Its headquarters is in Bremerhaven, with branchresearch offices in Potsdam, Oldenburg and on the islands of Helgoland and Sylt.