Reports from Potsdam (AWI, GFZ)


In collaboration with Jörg Hartmann at AWI Bremerhaven, the Helmholtz Young Investigators Group TEAM (Trace Gas Exchange in the Earth-Atmosphere System on Multiple Scales) led by Torsten Sachs from the German Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam GFZ) successfully completed the third “Airborne Measurements of Methane Flux” (AIRMETH) campaign, again covering extensive areas on the North Slope of Alaska and the Mackenzie Delta, Canada with airborne eddy covariance flux measurements of latent and sensible heat, carbon dioxide, and methane. One flight in Alaska was synchronized with a NASA CARVE (Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment) flight and hyperspectral and LIDAR data were collected both in Alaska and Canada in support of various others projects. Contact:


2013 was the second expedition of the Helmholtz Young Investigator Group led by Hugues Lantuit at the AWI (COPER, Coastal Permafrost erosion, organic carbon and nutrient release to the Arctic nearshore zone). The expedition was the eighth official expedition of the AWI in the area and took place from June 27 until August 3 on Herschel Island (NW Canada). The Expedition was part of the long-term cooperation between the AWI, McGill University and the Geological Survey of Canada (W. Pollard, G. Manson, N. Couture). A weather station and a monitoring flume, already used in 2010, 2011, and 2012 were deployed at the outlet of a retrogressive thaw slump to monitor water and sediment discharge over several weeks in the field. Additionally, water samples were taken to characterize the geochemical composition of the water. The boat of the AWI, the FS “Christine” was used as a platform to conduct bathymetrical and mapping surveys of the shore face, as well as sampling of the seafloor. Several shallow seismic lines were conducted around Herschel Island. Finally, a polygon located within the late Pleistocene glacial limit was sampled in detail to understand the link between vegetation and the late Holocene climate variability in the area. Contact:


As part of the Potsdam Research Cluster for Georisk Analysis and Environmental Sustainability (PROGRESS), geomonitoring capabilities of permafrost coastal erosion in the East Siberian Arctic were expanded. Using historical images with large areal coverage and new contemporary high and very high resolution remote sensing data, local, regional, seasonal, and inter-annual variations of coastal thermo-erosion along the ground ice rich Laptev Sea coast were systematically analyzed. Across a geographically broad baseline of well-distributed key areas in Eastern Siberia (Cape Mamontov Klyk, Buor Khaya Peninsula, Muostakh Island, and the continental coast of the Dmitriy Laptev Strait), the coastline retreated on average -2.2 meters per year over the past 40 years. The speed of coastal erosion has nearly doubled in the recent past and the small island of Muostakh east of the Lena Delta is especially affected by these changes. Following joint Russian-German expeditions in 2011 and 2012, Muostakh Island was visited also in 2013 for the third year in a row. Contact:,


CarboPerm (Carbon in Permafrost) is a new project (duration: 2013-2016), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with the aim to study the formation, transformation and release of organic carbon in North Siberian permafrost. The multidisciplinary approach includes environmental and vegetation reconstruction, biogeochemical cycling studies using biomarkers, the assessment of microbial degradation in the form of CO2 and CH4 release, and modelling. Studies of the recent carbon cycle are combined with detailed reconstructions under different climatic conditions back to the Eemian Interglacial and simulated with the help of models. It will be realized in close cooperation with Russian research institutes in Moscow, Sankt Petersburg, Krasnoyarsk and Yakutsk. This research will help to anticipate the future development of permafrost landscapes in the context of global warming and its impact on the carbon and trace gas budget. Contact:,


Many permafrost research teams used the Russian-German Research Station on Samoylov Island in the north Siberian Lena River Delta as the operational basis of numerous expeditions to the region from 1998 to 2012. This station is now replaced by the new Samoylov Island Research Station, which belongs to the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science. The new facility provides excellent working and living conditions for the scientists year round despite the harsh environmental condition in the Siberian Arctic. The new station was officially opened on the 21st of September 2013, but already started its scientific operation on the 17th of April. Several international permafrost research teams conducted their field campaigns during spring, summer, and fall covering several disciplines and topics. These included carbon storage and turnover, trace gas emissions, permafrost degradation by thermokarst and thermal erosion, surface subsidence, water and energy balance, and snow cover properties. Contact:


Related to the Postdoc project “Eurasian Arctic Ice 4k” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) Holocene ice wedges from several study sites in the Russian Arctic have been studied as paleoclimate archives over the last years. Ice wedges provide unique and substantial cold-period climate information for understanding the seasonal patterns of Holocene Arctic paleoclimate. The studied ice wedges reveal a general warming trend linked to increasing orbital and greenhouse gas forcing as well as an unprecedented warming in the last decades. Detailed investigations and sampling of the snow cover and its development until snow melt were conducted in spring at Samoylov Island to better understand the transformation of isotopic signals from precipitation into ground ice (i.e. ice wedges). Contact:,


Just recently funded, the ERC project PETA-CARB (Rapid Permafrost Thaw in a Warming Arctic and Impacts on the Soil Organic Carbon Pool) started in November 2013 (Duration: 2013-18) and will focus on combining remote sensing of permafrost landscape dynamics, quantitative field studies, and modelling of thermokarst processes to quantify the size and vulnerability of deep permafrost SOC pools to rapid permafrost thaw. The tree major research topics include: (1) Systematic measurement of rapid permafrost thaw, (2) Determining deep permafrost SOC stocks and carbon accumulation rates, and (3) Quantification of deep permafrost SOC pools and vulnerability assessment. First field expeditions are planned in collaboration with US partners from the USGS and UAF for the Alaska Northslope in April 2014, and in collaboration with Russian partners from PIY and AARI for the Lena Delta in August 2014. Contact:


In January 2013 started the three-year project “Degradation of ice-rich permafrost by thermal erosion” led by Anne Morgenstern within the Helmholtz Postdoc Program. It aims at quantifying and qualifying the impact of thermal erosion on the degradation of ice-rich permafrost in Siberian lowlands and relating it to ongoing changes of the water and carbon cycle in the Arctic. Project-related field work was carried out in July on Kurungnakh Island in the central Lena River Delta during the Expedition “Lena 2013”. Surface and relief properties of different types of thermo-erosional landforms were described and measured for a geomorphological characterization and will also serve as ground truth for consecutive remote sensing analyses. Discharge measurements and water sampling were conducted to analyze the contribution of the thermo-erosional landforms to water, organic matter, and nutrient transport to the coastal waters. Contact:


The AWI Potsdam has set up new laboratories for the analyses of genetic data, in particular DNA from sedimentary archives, for which special strict precautions minimize the risk of contamination with modern DNA. The facilities include a dedicated and physically separated laboratory for the analysis of sedimentary ancient DNA and a general genetics laboratory for downstream work and work on modern samples. The new DNA lab is located a building devoid of any other molecular genetic work. It contains UV-lamps for nightly irradiation of the complete room and a separate UV-hood for sample preparation, it is subjected to a rigorous regular cleaning procedure and researchers as well as consumables do not enter other buildings prior to working in this lab. The lab is used for DNA extraction and setup of reactions that amplify the ancient DNA, but the reactions themselves, as well as all downstream work is conducted in the general genetics lab, which is located in another building. Thus a strict one-way workflow is maintained to ensure the authenticity of results. Projects conducted in these laboratories focus on the analyses of terrestrial vegetation and planktonic organisms. In a larger collaborative project we are analyzing lake sediment cores from transects that cross the arctic-boreal tree line in Siberia, as well as modern populations of trees and plankton. Genetic data offers both an additional tool to reconstruct species assemblages, as well as allowing analyses of cryptic biodiversity changes, e.g. below the level of species. The integration of genetic data into paleoecological studies can therefore add to existing approaches and allows a novel level of resolution in the study of biodiversity history. Contact:,


PAGE21 is an EU FP7 large scale integrated project (Duration: 2011-15) that aims to understand and quantify the vulnerability of permafrost environments to a changing global climate, and to investigate the feedback mechanisms associated with increasing greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost zones. The research makes use of a unique set of Arctic permafrost investigations performed at stations that span the full range of Arctic bioclimatic zones and implements representations of permafrost-related processes and parameters in land-surface models of the most evolved European GCMs. The project brings together the best European permafrost researchers and eminent scientists from Canada, Russia, the USA, and Japan and together with partner programs and organizations, the International Permafrost Association (the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost (GTN-P) borehole network, and the CALM network) and the ESA's DUE Permafrost project (remote sensing), the project contributes to the newly available unique and streamlined data portal, offering for the first time a simplified data access interface for permafrost data. During 2013 the project concluded landscape level inventories of all representative soil types and flux data measurements at all PAGE21 study areas. Remote sensing entity developed downscaling schemes for improved long term dataset integration for arctic environments and conducted site scale analyses and evaluation of long term datasets with ground data. The modeling component completed first off-line land surface model simulations using CMIP5 archive analyzing GHG emission changes. Contact:, Website:


Two new projects are focusing on microbial communities of the carbon cycle in permafrost environments. For at least five years, the Helmholtz Young Investigators Research Group MicroCene led by Susanne Liebner, GFZ Potsdam, uncovers microbial abundance and functional diversity of organic rich subsurface environments such as peat and permafrost deposits and links this to (paleo)environmental reconstruction. A key system will thereby be submarine permafrost deposits of the Siberian Laptev Shelf. Central to MicroCene is the establishment of molecular in-depth community studies along gradients of environmental and climate change aiming at a detailed characterization and reconstruction of the microbial carbon cycle. The Helmholtz International Research Group ArcBiont investigates the association between microbial communities of the methane cycle and bryophytes of permafrost affected peatlands of Svalbard, northern Scandinavia and the Siberian Lena Delta. Central to ArcBiont is the structure and biogeography of peat moss associated methane cycling prokaryotes, as well as their relevance for the carbon and nitrogen budget of permafrost affected peatlands. Contact:

News from German universities

Figure 1. PhD student Daniel Dräbing maintaining the passive seismic recording system at the Gemsstock, 2963 m, Swiss Alps in the German-Swiss Project ISPR (see below, Photo. M. Krautblatter).


The project “ISPR: Influences of Snow Cover on Thermal and Mechanic Processes in Steep Permafrost Rockwalls” went to its third year with PhDs students Daniel Draebing (University of Bonn) and Anna Haberkorn (SLF) supervised by Michael Krautblatter (TU München) and Marcia Phillips (SLF Davos). In the second field season, geophysical and geotechnical measurements were done at Steintaelli and Gemsstock (Swiss Alps). A passive seismic recording system was installed to monitor crack development and rockfall at Gemsstock. Results of 3D refraction seismic monitoring was published (doi: 10.1002/2012JF002638) showing a new method to quantify active-layer thawing in permafrost bedrock. One diploma thesis by C. Querner investigates slope stability of the permafrost-affected rockwall at Gemsstock. Contact:


The newly established Chair of Landslide Research at the Technical University of Munich develops a mechanical and geophysical freezing lab capable of simulating frozen rock fracturing and shear under varying stresses and temperature conditions. Postdoc Kerry Leith published two JGR papers on feedback between tectonic stresses and glacial erosion in the Swiss Alps (DOI: 10.1002/2012JB009801 and DOI: 10.1002/2012JF002691). Michael Krautblatter published a rock-ice mechanical model for the destabilization of permafrost rock slopes and related rock slope failure (DOI: 10.1002/esp.3374). Monthly geophysical rock wall permafrost measurements at Germany’s highest peak the Zugspitze were re-established in addition to rock slope stability monitoring. Two new PhD students, Philip Mamot and Anne Voigtländer, started to investigate rock slope stability with a focus on laboratory experiments and field assessment of frozen rock and stress corrosion. Jia Hailiang, a PhD student assessing rock stability at the Three Gorges Reservoir from the China University of Geosciences, visits the Chair of Landslide Research for 1-2 years performing freeze thaw experiments and assessing rock fatigue. Contact:


The new Postdoc project “Short and long-term thermokarst dynamics due to climate changes and human impacts in Central Yakutia, Siberia” founded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) was established at the University of Leipzig (Institute for Geography) studying thermokarst dynamics in Central Yakutia. The goal is to reconstruct Holocene and recent permafrost degradation processes, their influencing factors and environmental impacts and to assess future landscape evolution and potential hazards associated with thermokarst in the populated Lena-Aldan-Amga region east and northeast of Yakutsk. Two thermokarst key sites were thus investigated in summer 2013. Both sites are located on different Lena River terraces that are geomorphologically classified with regard to differing Yedoma accumulation and degradation. At both sites, the field work included detailed sedimentological, geomorphological, and botanical surveys, as well as bathymetrical measurements. Remote sensing methods are used and combined with detailed field knowledge to investigate thermokarst processes on large spatial scales. Collaborating partners in this project are scientist of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute SB RAS in Yakutsk, the North-Eastern Federal University Yakutsk and the AWI Potsdam. Contact:


At the University of Giessen, the PhD students Stephan Imbery and Murataly Duishonakunow (supervised by Lorenz King, retired) continued their field work and will finish soon their PhD study on “Permafrost distribution and dynamics in the Chinese and Kyrgyz Tianshan”. Ina Keggenhoff will finish her PhD study on “Climate change and mountain hazards in the South Caucasus (Georgia)”. Contact:


At the University of Cologne (Institute of Geology and Mineralogy) the team around Janet Rethemeyer continued with its research focusing on carbon dynamics in Siberian permafrost soils. A first study on the composition and potential stabilization of organic matter has been completed and published (doi: 10.5194/bg-10-3145-2013) by PhD student Silke Höfle supported by Carsten Müller (TU Munich) and two master students who fractionated numerous soil samples from the active layer and extracted lipids from these fractions. This work is continued by Silke who  now is using 14C analysis of microbial lipids to identify the degradation of young/labile and old/refractory organic substrates by soil microorganisms. Postdoctoral researcher Reka Fülöp performed first promising 14C analyses of carbon dioxide and methane released from the active layer on Samoylov and Kurungnakh Island (Lena-Delta). However this work was challenged by long-transport and storage times of our sample containers – tubes with moleculare sieves – which were partly not leak-tight. Improved sampling techniques will be applied and new sample sets collected in the framework of the German-Russian research project “CarboPerm” funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Here the Cologne group is focusing on analyses of the age, quality, and degradability of organic material in permafrost in the Siberian Arctic. Contact:


At the University of Bayreuth (UBT, Department of Ecological Microbiology), Nico Roßbach continued research on peat circles in arctic tundra near Seida (Russia) in the group of Marcus A. Horn. Such peat circles have a low pH (app. 4), and are ‘hot-spots’ for the emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Denitrifying microorganisms release nitrous oxide as an intermediate under anoxic conditions, and are abundant in peat circles. Cell numbers of nitrous oxide producers decrease with soil depth. Temperature and pH optima for nitrous oxide production were determined with soil samples and diverse nitrous oxide producing denitrifiers were isolated and characterized. The team of Michael Zech (UBT, Department of Geomorphology) developed a new approach for the analysis of sugar and n-alkane specific isotopic signatures (O, H) in an eolian permafrost paleosol sequence, NE-Siberia. Thus, a biomarker record spanning 220 ka was obtained, enabling regional paleoclimate resonstruction. The data was published in “Chemical Geology” and suggests that summer temperatures during the Weichselian glacial period were periodically higher than nowadays. Contact:

Report prepared by Michael Krautblatter (