Every third person lives from the oceans and seas. Much of this space, however, still remains unexplored. Oceans and seas affect the weather and climate, stabilize global temperature, provide sustenance to millions of people and give us resources such as crude oil. They have, however, been strongly affected for decades by the rapid rise of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as well as by marine pollution and overfishing.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research’s new Year of Science, from mid-2016 to the end of 2017, is dedicated to oceans and seas, with the slogan: “Discover, Utilise and Protect”. The range of topics include marine habitats, food sources and commercial areas, the importance of the ocean for weather and climate, the societal relevance of the seas and coastal regions as a cultural space, a location of longing and a vacation destination.

The North Sea, one of our domestic seas, has changed more than any other in the last twenty years according to the "Convention on Biodiversity". The North Sea encompasses an area of nearly 600,000 square kilometres and has existed in its current form for the last eight to nine thousand years. The North Sea hasn’t always been a shelf sea at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Flood plains, a brackish lake (water with low salinity content) and even land has covered areas where the sea exists now. Compared to the Baltic Sea, the salinity content of the North Sea is relatively high due to its connection to the Atlantic. It is only between Denmark and Sweden, through a narrow strait, where the salty seawater from the North Sea flows into the Baltic.

The water temperature at the Helgoland Roads in the German North Sea has been measured for over a hundred years. Water samples are also taken there every day, from which each microorganism can be identified and counted. This data is of immeasurable value for planning our future, as humanity is extremely dependent on the coastal seas. The analysis of the temperature measurements makes it clear that warming in the past fifty years is particularly pronounced.

Intensive utilisation of the North Sea through transportation, sand removal and dumping, laying cables and pipes, fishing and use of large amounts of space by offshore wind parks have lead to an increase in environmental human impact in recent decades.

Rising sea levels in the North Sea from climate change will lend special meaning to coastal protection. By the end of the 21st century high storm floods in the North Sea could surge to over one meter higher than, for example, the storm flood on the North Sea coast and Hamburg in February 1962, which resulted in severe damage and over three hundred human casualties. These changes are due to sea level rise and a possible change of the wind climate.

The unique Wadden Sea, encompassing a habitat of approximately ten thousand square kilometres, is also particularly sensitive to environmental influences. Climate change and rising sea levels influence the structure, function and characteristic biodiversity of the Wadden Sea’s ecosystems in the long-term as well as the safety of the region's inhabitants.

During the Ocean and Seas Year of Science, numerous events are planned by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), the GEOMAR, Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, Centre for Materials and Coastal Research (HZG). Coastal researchers at the HZG examine, for example, virtually unknown ocean eddies that have an impact on climate. The scientists introduce their research in the unique Clockwork Ocean Project.

Text: Karl Dzuba, Earth and Environment Science Platform. Academic review: Dr Holger Brix, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht.

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