The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources

Understanding Antarctica’s geological history

For more than 40 years the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) has advised the Federal Government with regard to the further development of the Antarctic Treaty system and makes significant contributions to geoscientific research in Antarctica. The Institute is involved in long-term national and international research programmes which conduct basic research in the field of geosciences. The focus is on questions regarding structure, make-up and historical development of the continent of Antarctica. Fundamental geodynamic processes play a role here which have, for example, led to the emergence and disappearance of super continents such as Gondwana or Rodinia millions of years ago. Antarctica’s landscape is characterised by extended mountain belts and rift valleys located both at the edges and in the interior of the continent. The development of this landscape is a complex interplay of tectonics, rock structure and climate. All these aspects are among the priority areas of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources. The findings gleaned help not least to better understand the Earth system as a whole.

A window on the Earth’s history

The geoscientific research focuses on eastern Antarctica and the Transantarctic Mountains bordering on western Antarctica. One research priority is the Pacific end of the Transantarctic Mountains on the edge of the Ross Sea, where North Victoria Land and its neighbouring regions are located. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources has been operating the research programme GANOVEX (German Antarctic North Victoria Land Expedition) here since 1979. Fourteen expeditions to this region have been undertaken to date. The findings gleaned from these are impressive proof that the Transantarctic Mountains offer an outstanding window on the past and the geological development of the Gondwana continent and ultimately Antarctica. In North Victoria Land the Institute has operated two summer stations as logistical bases for the expeditions since 1980 and 1983 respectively – one is the Lillie Marleen Hut, which is listed as a historic site, and the other is Gondwana Station in the Terra Nova Bay in the Ross Sea, which was modernised in 2016 to reduce its environmental impact.

Expeditions to the heart of Antarctica

The Institute was also involved in many other expeditions in the past, some of which it helped to organise, including expeditions in the Shackelton Range, Queen Maud Land, the central Transantarctic Mountains, the Prince Charles Mountains in the region of the Lambert Glacier and the Gamburtsev Mountain Range. Drawing on the experience gained from all these various different projects, the Institute developed the major long-term research programme GEA (Geodynamic Evolution of East Antarctica), which was launched in 2010. It is a project run in cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute. In the GEA programme, researchers explore the crustal structure of East Antarctica and its development using a combination of geophysical and geological methods. To date, six field campaigns have been conducted in the Queen Maud Land region. They have revealed an entirely new picture of the crustal structure of East Antarctica in this region.

International drilling projects

In recent years, the Institute was also involved in two international research drilling projects in the Ross Sea – ANDRILL and the Cape Roberts Project. Both drilling programmes explored the history of the climate and the ice history of the Ross Sea region as well as its tectonic, volcanic and sedimentary development. The Institute also conducts geophysical explorations and collects sediment samples in cooperation with the AWI within the context of the Sub-EIS-Obs project in the vicinity of Neumayer Station III. This work provides the basis for a future international research drilling programme, which is intended to glean new findings on the geodynamic and climate development of Antarctica. Furthermore, the Institute is currently cooperating with international partners to prepare the research drilling project SWAIS-2C in the western part of the Ross Sea, for which New Zealand will assume lead responsibility. It will explore what happened to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet during previous warm periods, when temperatures like those we expect to see in the imminent future prevailed.

Involvement in the nuclear test ban network

The Institute is also active in Antarctica in a quite different context. At Neumayer Station III it operates a permanent monitoring station to record infrasound waves produced by nuclear weapon tests, for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) prohibits nuclear weapon tests underground, under water and in the atmosphere. To ensure compliance with the Treaty, an International Monitoring System (IMS) comprising 321 monitoring stations distributed evenly across the globe is being set up. The data from Neumayer Station III and all the other stations are fed into the worldwide network in real time for monitoring purposes.