Analysing Coastal Regions

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The planet's coastal regions have always been a source of fascination as well as preferred areas for human habitation. Nearly half the global population lives within one hundred miles of the coast today.
The coasts also represent an important field of research for scientists. The area in which land and water meet is a hot spot of species diversity, exchange processes and a region for numerous human endeavours.

The scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht’s Institute of Coastal Research have made it their aim to understand and assess the diverse processes and interactions on the coast and to evaluate how the global coasts will develop in the future.

The common goal is to contribute to a better understating of the natural processes and human influences on the coast by means of observations, analyses and modelling. Using such methods, the Institute of Coastal Research provides a scientific basis for sustainable development and future-oriented coastal management.


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Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas

FerryBox - when ferries become research vessels

The Coast in Focus

The coast in focus with the coastal observation system COSYNA (Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas)

Whether using satellites, wave measurement buoys or research vessels – the scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht always keep the coasts in focus.

Their coastal observation system COSYNA (Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas) is one the most comprehensive monitoring systems worldwide. The measurement network that consists of multifaceted measuring instruments and observation platforms constantly delivers descriptions and forecasts on the environmental state of the North Sea with the help of computer simulations. The publicly available COSYNA data enables users from the governmental, research and industrial sectors to better plan routine tasks and to react using appropriate measures in extreme situations, including contaminations, oil accidents or toxic algae blooms.

The coastal researchers are constantly developing and refining their methods. They also want to understand the “ocean’s clockwork.”

The Eddy Hunters in the Ocean's Clockwork

Ocean currents affect life on our planet. The Gulf Stream is considered the heat pump of European climate. The energy of the large-scale current is broken up into smaller and smaller eddies and is ultimately lost in small-scale turbulence and friction. The crucial phase in this energy cascade likely takes place among eddies measuring a few kilometres in diameter.


Hunting down the eddies.

Due to the lack of satellite resolution and the extremely short lifespan of the eddies, they could be measured only recently off California's coast for the first time by an international research team lead by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht. In order to directly observe eddies with a diameter of up to ten kilometres, the scientists must act quickly. The eddies form and disintegrate within a few hours and can only be seen on the sea surface with some difficulty.

During their expeditions, “eddy hunters” work with data collected from space, from the air and on the water. The eddies are detected using highly sensitive thermal imaging cameras installed on aircraft. The scientists then approach the eddy in a speed boat. Using specially developed instruments, they investigate the temperature distribution and other parameters within the eddy. The results provide information on how near-surface water masses mix or how the occurrence and growth of microalgae is controlled.

Coastal researchers from Geesthacht will also employ these methods in both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea in the future.

Institutes & Departments

Steckbrief Institut

Institut Institute of Coastal Research
Abteilungen Radar Hydrography: In order to record the structure of the sea floor, shifting sands and other sediments in water, expensive and time-consuming sea expeditions are usually necessary. Researchers in the Department of Radar Hydrography develop radar-supported measuring methods with which the shape of the seabed can be examined from shore while expending less effort.

Remote Sensing: The planet’s coastal regions can be observed on a global scale from satellites. The Department for Bio-optical Remote Sensing uses methods developed in-house with which optical and biogeochemical sea water properties can be determined from satellite data.

Submesoscale Dynamic: The extremely complex observational technologies developed over the last years require further systematic advance to capture the highly transient, and short-lived nature of submesoscale eddies. The goal is a complete description of the energy transport in the open ocean and coastal zones. With this we can, for example, explain the spatial patterns in the distribution of zooplankton and other ingredients of the marine food web. Since the physics of submesoscale are universal in the world oceans, our coastal seas can therefore provide a blueprint for coastal regions throughout the world.

In-situ Measuring Systems: Constant changes and the latest occurrences in coastal waters can only be ascertained when continuous and economically obtained information exists about the water quality. We use and develop in-situ methods for observing the coastal seas. Water quality measurements can be carried out on-site using these methods. We therefore obtain measurement results at sea, not only after sample analysis in the laboratory.

New Technologies: The department coordinates the development of new measuring systems and modelling techniques, manages research and industry collaborations and communicates knowledge to stakeholders and to the public.

Small-scale Physics and Turbulence: In the new "Small-scale Physics and Turbulence" group, we work to understand ocean circulations, mixing and transport processes by studying the smallest turbulent scales of motion.

From the Atmosphere to the Sea Floor

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Nitrogen Cycle in Coastal Waters - Nitrogen Measurements in the River Elbe more


Combined Ammonia and Shipping Emissions Favour Particulate Matter Formation Notably in Coastal Regions more

Chemical compounds and their processes, whether naturally occurring or industrial contaminants, play an important role in the environment and in people's lives. Their occurrence and distribution are only discernable with the most modern analysis techniques and computer simulations. The seabed and the processes taking place there seem similarly hidden at first glance. Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht make “the invisible” comprehensible.

The Long Life of Poisons

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Substances can possess extremely long lifespans and can find their way to even the most remote locations.

By analysing air and water samples, and with the aid of computer-assisted transport models, scientists study the source of pollutants and how these contaminants spread regionally and globally. The work focuses on organic contaminants such as those found in textile impregnating agents or in flame retardants used in the automotive industry. Some of these compounds are extremely durable and also accumulate extensively in the food chain. Their toxicity and how they enter the environment remains, to a large extent, unexplored.

Reading the Sands on the Sea Floor

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Sedimente sind Archiv der Umweltbedingungen.

To understand how the coastal region develops, we must also study the sea floor. The seabed is an especially important component of the ecosystem in shallow shelf seas, for example, in the North and Baltic Seas. The sediments on the seabed are not only archives of past environmental conditions, but they are also actively involved in material cycles and in pollutant binding while serving as a habitat for an abundance of plant and animal species. Surprisingly, sedimentary processes are still rarely included in scientific models. Coastal researchers in Geesthacht provide important stimuli for international shelf sea and coastal research.

The Sea Floor at a Glance

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The coastMap portal provides access to data and combines analyses to seafloor conditions with a focus on the North Sea habitat.

The marine geoportal coastMap provides access to existing geodata and information products of the HZG and its partner institutions. It combines analyses and model data relevant to seafloor conditions and those in the overlying water column and the atmosphere with a focus on the North Sea. coastMap makes data available to experts, professionals of other disciplines and the interested public.

The Institutes & Departments

Steckbrief Institut

Institut Institute of Coastal Research
Abteilungen Marine Bioanalytical Chemistry: The department studies new and priority hazardous materials, especially heavy metals and element compounds as well the potential effects they might induce near the coasts and in marine environments by using integrative sampling techniques.

Environmental Chemistry: Scientists study the current impact of pollutants as well as their historical development in nature – for example, by comparing air and water samples with sediment samples.

Chemistry Transport Modelling: With the help of complex three-dimensional model systems, the researchers study the transport and fate of contaminants, nutrients and long-lasting chemicals in the atmosphere.

Aquatic Nutrient Cycles: Biologists and geoscientists study common sources and sinks of nutrients and oxygen in coastal seas and their role in the ecosystem. Another focus is on the evaluation of different input pathways under natural conditions in the rivers and coastal seas. Investigating the seabed processes plays a crucial role – a challenge for new measurement and observation technology.

Modelling for the Assessment of Coastal Systems: This group focuses on mathematically modelling the complex coastal habitat. Long-term simulations of different numerical models are therefore employed, such as atmospheric and current models used in combination.

Wind, Waves and Humanity

Scientists in Geesthacht analyse and model the coastal climate. What did the sea state, storms and storm floods look like in the past and how could they develop in the future? Sound answers to these questions help assess coastal risks and enable us to make informed decisions.

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Scientists in Geesthacht analyse and model the coastal climate.

Data for Science, Society and the Economy

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The data provided by coastal scientists in Geesthacht is also used in the shipbuilding industry.

The coastal researchers in Geesthacht created the coastDat database, which provides model data sets on coastal climate in the North and Baltic Seas – data sets that are free of gaps in space and time. CoastDat offers, for example, information on wind, sea state and water level conditions in the North Sea and Baltic Sea for the last sixty years as well as data on how the coastal climate could possibly change in the future.

CoastDat data is used in planning offshore wind energy plants, in the shipbuilding industry or for studies on potential marine energy use. The data is also utilised to model the effects of acute or chronic oil pollution.

Researching Climate Change in the Baltic Sea Region


An algae bloom in the Baltic Sea. Scientists from thirteen European countries have compiled a report on climate change in the Baltic Sea region.

Scientists from thirteen European countries have compiled a report on climate change. The researchers have published their findings in a book containing the first comprehensive survey on climate change in the region: Assessment of Climate Change for the Baltic Sea Basin. The project was coordinated by the Baltic Earth-Sekretariat (former BALTEX) based in Geesthacht.

The air temperatures in this particular region could increase up to five degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Calculations predict a possible rise in sea surface temperature of around two to four degrees Celsius in the Baltic Sea. Further regional climate reports were provided, including on the Hamburg metropolitan region.

Studying Perceived Safety

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Human endeavours affect coastal systems. What do coastal citizens think of these activities?

Wind energy plants, fisheries, tourism: human endeavours affect coastal systems. What do coastal citizens think of these activities?

Is climate change perceived as threatening? With the help of socio-economic studies, the coastal scientists in Geesthacht can better understand the relationship between nature and humanity within the coastal regions.

Example: Climate Change Risk Awareness Among Hamburg Citizens [2008-2014] (In German)

Steckbrief Institut

Institut Institute of Coastal Research
Abteilungen Coastal Climate: Scientists examine how coastal climate changes in the long term. With the aid of complex modelling systems, past conditions are reconstructed and future scenarios are generated.

Regional Atmospheric Modelling: Researchers use regional atmospheric models to illustrate small-scale changes, for example, on short stretches of coastline over a period of several decades.

Data Analysis and Data Assimilation: The research emphasis here lies in the synoptic description of coastal waters. Thus, the development of continuously operating measurement and modelling systems and advanced observational strategies is supported. Assessing and improving the observation systems with the help of adaptive sampling and the integration of data and models is the department's long-term strategy.

Paleoclimatology and Statistics: The department’s focus lies in investigating long-term changes in the past in order to better understand the mechanisms that triggered climate variations before the industrial period. This serves to contextualize the most recent climate changes within a long-term perspective.

Human Dimensions of Coastal Areas: The department is dedicated to investigating the socio-economic aspects of climate change, land-use conflicts and the conditions for future development in coastal regions. The aim is to gain a better understanding of nature/human interactions.

Long Term Impacts on Coastal Zones: The group’s research focuses on analysing the processes that influence socially relevant long-term historical, current and future changes in the coastal regions as well as on examining their cause-and-effect relationships. For this purpose, regional data sets are collected and then analysed jointly based on observations, reconstructions and models from interdisciplinary research branches relevant to coastal dynamic processes.

Ecosystem Modelling: The group utilises numeric modelling to examine scenarios of ecosystem dynamics in coastal waters. In the model system, the scientists incorporate relevant interfaces between land, ocean and atmosphere and integrate biological adaptation processes to explain the temporal and spatial variability of observations.

Coordination of Ocean Wave Modelling Themes: The group’s focus is on the development and application of a fully coupled atmosphere-wave-ocean model.

Coordination of Storm Themes: Storm research has been conducted at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht’s Institute of Coastal Research for more than ten years. The research focuses on storms in the temperate latitudes, tropical storms such as typhoons and small/mesoscale storms, such as polar lows or medicanes.

Northern German Climate Office (german only): The Northern German Climate Office serves as your partner for climate questions in northern Germany.

The Northern German Coast and Climate Office

Der Klimawandel beeinflusst auch die norddeutschen Küsten..

Climate change also influences the northern German coasts.

The climate is changing – in northern Germany too. The The Northern German Coast and Climate Office provides current climate research in a user-friendly format and makes it available to the public and to decision makers across northern Germany. The The Northern German Coast and Climate Office has therefore maintained an intensive dialogue with specialists from climate sensitive areas and with interested laypersons since 2006. The dialogue has resulted in different informational services concerning past and possible future climate change as well as its arising consequences in Northern Germany.

Northern German Climate Monitor – Past and Present
Northern German Climate Atlas – The Future
Coastal Protection Requirements (“Küstenschutzbedarf”)
Climate Report for the Hamburg Metropolitan Region

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Paleoclimate – Learning from the Past more

Research in the Baltic Sea region
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