coastMap – Scientists Harvest Data Treasures

Collected measurement data from the North Sea’s seabed, its overlying water column and atmosphere are integrated into the coastMap marine geoportal, developed by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG). Prof Kay-Christian Emeis is director of the Institute of Coastal Research at the HZG. In the first segment of the interview, he points out how researchers as well as those interested in science can benefit from coastMap and what new challenges we will face regarding the North Sea’s future.

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?

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.

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).

Further information

 coastMap Portal 
  Biogeochemistry: Institute for coastal research, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG) 
  Helmholtz Resonator Research Podcast (in German): „Nordseebiogeochemie“ with Prof. Dr. Kay-Christian Emeis (HZG).

Texts, pictures and graphics, unless otherwise noted: | CC BY4.0 | Earth System Knowledge Platform - The knowledge platform for the "Earth and Environment" research field of the Helmholtz Association.

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