CoastMap is the marine geoportal of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht’s Institute of Coastal Research. It vividly combines analyses and model data for the North Sea. Collected measurement data from the North Sea’s seabed, its overlying water column and atmosphere are integrated into the coastMap geoportal. All data from research expeditions are centrally systemized in this way and the results and insights are presented in a comprehensible manner, particularly for non-experts. An important component of the portal is the coastMap app. The web application invites all those interested in science on an expedition – from the mouth of the Elbe, to Heligoland and to the edge of the Dogger Bank. The coastMap portal illustrates human impact on the marine environment, such as the spatial distribution of organic pollutants as well as chemical contamination. Using its comprehensive model data, coastMap can realistically image extreme and average conditions in the North Sea for any location and for long periods of time. Soon it could even be possible to precisely retrace the entry region of pollutants, which in turn could help better identify the polluters.
1. Prof Emeis:Suppose you were not director of the Institute for Biogeochemistry at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, but simply a North Sea coastal resident.What information from the coastMap portal would you look at first?What is particularly exciting?
Emeis: In coastMap we have a section called “Spotlights”. This is where we present data and model results in the context of certain questions: for example, questions regarding the Wadden Sea, our research on currents, which is in turn relevant for pollutant distribution or ship exhaust gases. These topics are also prepared for non-experts. The coastMap portal, for example, includes interactive maps and easily understandable explanations so that you can explore them yourself on different levels. In our next “Spotlight”, by the way, everything revolves around the vital topic of eutrophication—that is, excessive nutrient input into the North Sea.
2. What makes your data portal—that is, the campaign data—so interesting to scientists?
Emeis: The campaign database serves three purposes. First, it should collect measured data and make it retrievable. This is simply the natural working principle of every researcher. Here, we developed a procedure to reward those who provide data. Together with the World Data Center PANGAEA, we assign, for example, what is known as a digital object identifier (DOI). This is then to be considered as a publication and brings each individual researcher necessary points in the scientific environment. Then there is, at the moment, much older data that is only available in the form of tables, either distributed over various locations or lying somewhere unused. In the worst case, the data gets lost. This is a situation we definitely want to prevent, and we want to process these treasures bit by bit. The data can also be better shared now. The campaign database is connected to other databases by standardized, internationally accepted formats and services. The “FAIR” principle of “findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable” applies to our research data infrastructure. That is a national endeavour. The large data quantities become altogether more manageable because they can be easily searched.
3. Scientists often carry out measurement campaigns. How does coastMap support them here?
Emeis: The database facilitates expedition bookkeeping for the scientists. Here, the positions, time, images, notes and similar information are recorded directly and are Internet-based. This prevents transfer errors and assures from the beginning that valuable information from a long series of steps, such as sampling, sample processing, measurement, analysis and ultimately publication, can be merged. The data should be stored so that it is reliable and retrievable, even when there is no data infrastructure available, as is sometimes the case at universities. Unfortunately, universities practically never have interdisciplinary data managers. This is also because they are organised in a way that is thematically too diverse.
4. Is model data becoming more accessible?
Emeis: You know, it’s like this: an individual in science works either in the laboratory or is explicitly working with models on the computer. The two worlds don’t have a lot to do with each other. With coastMap, however, these two working worlds are merged in a very innovative way. Model data often consists of extraordinarily extensive data sets, in space and time. Dealing with these data sets is virtually unmanageable for non-modellers. If I want to know, for example, how the average temperature or the kinetic energy has changed over the past decades on the seafloor of the North Sea in a particular region, what the minimal or maximal temperatures during a time period were, then I can view this information using simple methods in our Model Analysis Tool. I myself have always regretted not continuing to work with models because modern models are powerful tools with terabytes of data that are now more readily available.
5. Does coastMap facilitate interdisciplinary work?
Emeis: Yes, indeed. The scientists frequently collaborate in groups from different disciplines for their projects. A great deal of observation and measurement data arises as a result. In many cases, this data is related. For example, the concentration of organic pollutants is dependent on the grain size and the concentration of organic material. In order to recognize this relationship, all measurement data for a sample should be retrievable for statistical analysis. Let’s take the North Sea: this is a good example concerning the distribution of typical communities of organisms dwelling on the seabed. Their distribution is determined by their preferences with regard to aspects such as temperature and salinity, soil conditions, food supply and/or the energy on the seafloor from waves and currents. This information cannot be read from measurements taken from the ship at the time – they vary widely. This is where model data analysis helps, as the extreme and average conditions can be imaged realistically for any location and for long periods of time.
6. Where do the models and data from the observations taken directly in the North Sea correspond particularly well?
Emeis: Our prime examples are the distribution of oil spills as well as shipping emissions. Here we’re already doing very well—which is also because these models have been created for a specific purpose. Furthermore, the hydrodynamic models, current models and our temperature and salinity models correspond very well with the available observations. There is, however, never a model that illustrates all aspects of such complex things as a coastal ecosystem perfectly. As for specific things, the models can be designed to fit the observations quite well. This does not mean, however, that the model will work in other situations exactly the same way. Our concern therefore is to combine the models and data—which cannot in themselves be perfect and can never entirely reflect reality—in order to create an improved product that is spatially and temporally comprehensive.
7. What information, in your view, is particularly informative for policy makers?What would you currently be observing very closely?
Emeis: Right now we’re working on recording the specific chemical and isotopic fingerprints for individual rivers and catchment areas. When the water and particles from the rivers reach the North Sea, they are intensively mixed and transported over long distances. We hope to be able to reconstruct the origins of novel organic pollutants or inorganic substances by combining measurements and transport modelling. This is a first and very vital step in regulating possible problematic discharge. In other work, we look at specific wind park emissions. Here we’re examining whether a potential risk exists when metals or problematic organic substances are released. We’re looking at whether we can recognise this specific source—that is, wind parks—in the measurements.
Changing industrial production processes as well as changing production portfolios are currently leading to a focus not only on the aforementioned "traditional" organic contaminants, such as lead, cadmium, tin or mercury, but also on other element groups. The rapid development in the field of regenerative energy production and electrical mobility as well as many everyday technical achievements, such as smartphones, flat-screen monitors or LED lamps, are hardly conceivable without what are known as “technology-critical elements”. This includes rare earths, elements in the platinum group, and exotic elements such as antimony and rhenium, to name a few.
Especially in densely populated industrialised catchment areas, increasing amounts of diffuse input can already be detected from individual element groups into the environment, while very little is known about the long-term toxicology, mobility and chemical behaviour in the aquatic and marine environments. In particular, possible bioaccumulation of these elements in marine organisms as well accumulation in organisms at higher trophic levels raises new questions concerning possible effects on the ecosystems concerned, on food safety and, correspondingly, on the health of people living in the affected areas (Text: Dr D. Pröfrock). (Photo: imago/imagebroker)
Lead is a heavy metal. Leaded gasoline was widely used until the 1980s. Once in the environment, lead fails to properly degrade and accumulates in the sediment. Due to their inherent toxicity, persistence, non-degradability and number of possible sources still in existence, heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, tin or mercury as well their chemical compounds are among the most important inorganic pollutants. They are still found in varying concentrations in sediments of the North Sea and/or the river estuaries. Anthropogenic activities, such as repeated dredging, mobilise the polluted sediments and in turn the pollutants contained within those sediments. Extreme events have a similar effect, such as during the Elbe flood in 2013, in which a large quantity of old deposits was mobilised in the upper reaches of the river, leading to a sharp increase of contaminants in the short term (Text: Dr D. Pröfrock). (Map: coastMap/HZG)
Organic contaminants tend to accumulate in organically rich fine-grained material. The more plant or organic remains found in the seabed sediment, the more probable it is that the pollutants might accumulate there. It is therefore mandatory that the scientists use the total organic carbon content (TOC) as well as particle size distribution if they want to compare and evaluate the pollutant concentration. This map was assembled and extrapolated from several thousand individual measurements (Text: Prof K.-Ch. Emeis). (Map: coastMap/HZG)
Areas with low current or wave energy can be seen clearly. The water depth in the Norwegian Trench is 800 metres and a great deal of pollutants gather there. Heavy metals always concentrate in conjunction with fine clay particles or with organic carbon, which are lightweight and fine, with large surfaces. The pollutant distribution is therefore not arbitrary, but connected to a particular type of sediment.
This grain size is also found in the old ice age river valleys and in the “Heligoland Schlickloch” (Heligoland “mud hole“). The pollutants from the southern North Sea prefer to collect there. The high pollutant concentration is therefore not to be found at the river mouths, but where fine material settles (Text: Interview Prof K.- Ch. Emeis). (Map: coastMap/HZG)
Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs und PFCs) are among the surface active agents (surfactants). They have a broad range of uses, from consumer products to electronic equipment and fire-fighting foam. The production and use of some PFASs and PFCs were reduced due to national and international regulations. This resulted in a shift in production to non-regulated PFASs and an increase in production in Asia.
Rapid economic development, especially in China, led to a rise in demand, production and use of fluorinated chemicals. The current transport of PFASs in the Chinese environment remains largely unknown. Researchers expect to gain insights on local differences in production and utilisation of PFASs and possible environmental problems by comparing samples from China and the German Bight (Text: Prof R. Ebinghaus). (Photo: imago stock&people)
Chemical dispersants dissolve floating oil slicks and mix the oil into the water column as small droplets. The use of such dispersants is controversial. An enlarged surface accelerates oil degradation, but flora and fauna could be damaged if the oil/dispersant mixture is insufficiently diluted.
One important effect is that oil droplets in the water column, as opposed to an oil slick, are not directly exposed to wind shear and for that reason are carried more slowly and in different directions. In some instances, chemical dispersion can therefore prevent the oil from penetrating the highly sensitive Wadden Sea. By simulating millions of hypothetical cases, probabilities were mapped to determine if dispersion would substantially reduce contamination of the Wadden Sea (Text: Dr U. Callies). (Map: coastMap/HZG)
Fluoranthene is an unsaturated cyclic hydrocarbon and is a water contaminant. Hydrocarbons are present in nature in the form of petroleum, natural gas, coal (and coal tar) as well as other fossil materials in larger quantities. They are released into the environment when burned. The overall concentrations of organic pollutants are low in the predominantly sandy sediments of the German Bight.
Increased concentrations are found for some highly chlorinated, carcinogenic compounds (PCBs) and some DDT (insecticide) degradation products. The same applies to some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which result from combustion processes but are not listed in the Stockholm Convention. Then, of course, there are still dumping sites where dredged material and sewage sludge have been introduced, where, in certain locations, higher concentrations in the sediment and in the pore water can be found. Compared to the Baltic Sea, however, which contains more organically rich sediment, the concentrations in the sandy North Sea sediment are rather low. The map is based on point measurement extrapolations made by the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (Text: Prof K.-Ch. Emeis). (Map: coastMap/HZG)
8. Could you shed some light on the wind park topic in more detail?
Emeis: After Fukushima, there was a 180-degree turn in energy policy practically over night. When the “Exclusive Economic Zone”, under the jurisdiction of the federal government, was chosen for wind parks, everything went very quickly. The northern German states were excited about this industry. No one spared a thought about what this actually meant for our other targets, such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and for bird and nature protection or for the North Sea as an ecosystem, which we actually want to preserve as it is. Only now are they beginning to examine the situation. We are involved at many levels of this topic at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht. Wastewater plumes from the wind parks are examined for chemicals. We need to keep an eye on possible new sources. There are, for example, sacrificial aluminium anodes that protect the more precious metals on the wind turbine from rust, or there are also the plastics in the sandbags. One question that still remains unresolved concerns what will happen with the one million tons of metal—the foundation of the wind turbines—when they are no longer in operation. Despite these new issues, I can say that the trends in the North Sea should be viewed in an entirely positive light. At the moment, all values are below the legal limits.
Prof Emeis, thank you for the interview.
This interview was conducted by Jana Kandarr (ESKP).
Biogeochemistry: Institute for coastal research, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG)
Helmholtz Resonator Research Podcast (in German): „Nordseebiogeochemie“ with Prof. Dr. Kay-Christian Emeis (HZG).
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