Research for the Environment

Climate research at the UFZ

Public perception of climate change

The reality of irreversible, anthropogenically-influenced climate change has been in the focus of public consciousness, at least since the publication of the fourth and most recent Assessment Report (AR4) by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, if not before. Buzzwords like global warming, rising sea levels and clustering of extreme climate events are on everyone’s lips. In Germany, ‘Klimakatastrophe’ (climate catastrophe) was even chosen as Word of the Year 2007.

Arctic sea ice extent in September 2007

Zoom

Current signs of climate change?
Arctic sea ice extent in September 2007, an extreme year (left: ice coverage 4.1 million square kilometres). The magenta line shows the average September ice coverage for the years 1979 to 2000.
Source: The National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder (acquired via the Alfred Wegener Institute).

Series of measurement data for the last approx. 150 years, showing climate changes with surface temperature increase (a), sea level rise (b) and reduction in winter snow cover in the northern hemisphere (c).

Zoom

Series of measurement data for the last approx. 150 years, showing climate changes with surface temperature increase (a), sea level rise (b) and reduction in winter snow cover in the northern hemisphere (c).
Source: Diagram from the 2007 IPCC report

The research community too is facing new, pressing issues and tasks in the areas of climate research and climate impact research. The rise in global temperatures in the 20th century (an increase of 0.74 °C was observed between 1906 and 2005) is almost certainly largely the result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases over the past two centuries. The slow-moving nature of the global climate system means that today’s very high greenhouse gas emissions will not have a noticeable effect until future decades. We have to assume then that the earth’s climate will continue to warm up over some time, even if we succeed in achieving a drastic reduction in climate gas emissions in the near future.

Climate impact research and adaptation

Regional climate models that calculate possible future climate changes are predicting massive climate change impacts by the year 2100, including in Germany. Temperatures in Germany will rise between 1.5 and 3.7 °C depending on the region and season, summer rainfall levels will be 30 per cent lower, the number and duration of heat waves will increase, and sea levels will be 30 per cent higher on average than they are today. These figures clearly show that climate change will have serious consequences for humans and the environment in Germany as well as the rest of the world. Climate change impacts touch on many spheres of activity that are important to society, such as health, agriculture, forestry and water management, nature conservation, transport, tourism, flood and coastal protection, and land use and town planning.

For instance, climate change could lead in Germany to the emergence of diseases not previously found in these latitudes. The climate-induced shift in vegetation zones in Europe will also lead to a change in crop cultivation. It is likely, for instance, that it will be possible to grow more fruits and vegetables that have previously been grown in the Mediterranean climate region. Another area on which climate change has a lasting impact is tourism. An example is the winter sports industry in Germany’s low mountain ranges. The predictions for this region indicate that in future decades winters will be less and less likely to have enough snow for winter sports. These examples clearly illustrate that climate impact research, which analyses areas susceptible to climate changes, and implicit risks and opportunities at various levels, but also means identifying and planning possible measures for adapting to climate change, will play an important role in the future. Climate impact research is the basis for an effective strategic adaptation concept at national level.

Projects and initiatives at the UFZ:

Using lake sediments and other evidence, UFZ scientists are reconstructing the climate of selected historical periods

Using lake sediments and other evidence, UFZ scientists are reconstructing the climate of selected historical periods (ranging in duration from several months to thousands of years).
Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Temperature, CO2 and dust levels in the atmosphere over the past approx. 450,000 years according to Antarctic ice core data

Zoom

Temperature, CO2 and dust levels in the atmosphere over the past approx. 450,000 years according to Antarctic ice core data. Clearly visible are the periodically recurring warm periods (temperature and CO2 levels high, dust levels low; including the current warm period, known as the Holocene) and cold periods (temperature and CO2 levels low, dust levels high). These data from the geological past do not yet show the current temperature and CO2 trends.
Source: Diagram based on Petit et al., 1999

Palaeoclimate research

It has long been known from climate research that the earth’s climate has seen many dramatic changes over the course of the earth’s history. There have also been extreme greenhouse climates with atmospheric CO2 levels higher than today’s levels, even under natural conditions. However, it is also clear that the atmosphere has not had CO2 levels anywhere near as high as those measured in recent decades for hundreds of thousands of years. This also applies to the interglacial periods with conditions rather similar to our own. This example shows that current climatic changes can be understood and explained only if we know enough about how climate has developed in the past. There continues to be a real need for research work, particularly with regard to the ongoing lively debate about natural and anthropogenic causes of current climate change - a debate which of course also has a significant impact on the international community’s willingness to act in the area of climate protection.

The projects at the UFZ: