Benthic ecosystem functions in polar seas: Patterns, dynamics, threats, protection

Research group Functional Ecology, Alfred-Wegener-Institute

Polar seas are particularly affected by climate change, as the resulting environmental changes (e.g., ocean warming and acidification, sea-ice retreat) have a particularly early and significant impact here. At the same time, exploration and exploitation of natural resources, shipping, and tourism are steadily increasing, and hence the threats to polar marine biotas. The consequences of the various effects in their entirety are difficult to predict, however, because they influence each other, are therefore complex and often do not run in a linear fashion. The remoteness of polar regions offers the opportunity to preserve some of the world’s last refuges of marine biodiversity. Yet, because of the marked sensitivity of the mostly highly adapted polar organisms and communities, pronounced shifts in biodiversity and food webs are already underway, and will intensify as climate change continues. Seafloor communities (benthos) play a special role in the context of climate change and climate mitigation, because of their potential to capture and store carbon dioxide (“blue carbon”). Current scientific evidence suggests that this globally important ecosystem service is distinctly increasing in polar latitudes, while elsewhere, in warmer waters, important carbon sinks, such as mangroves and seagrass beds, are in decline.
A better understanding of the ecological relationships is urgently needed to be able to develop feasible and efficient measures for the protection and, if necessary, sustainable use of polar marine ecosystems based on sound scientific knowledge.

Research questions

We investigate functions and services of seafloor ecosystems in the Arctic and Antarctic, and assess what ecological consequences changes in biodiversity and food webs have. These are the key questions we address with our research:

  • What are the fundamental patterns and processes that characterise and determine ecosystem functions in polar seas?
  • How do climate change and direct human impacts affect key functions (e.g., biodiversity, matter and energy turnover, carbon capture and storage) of marine ecosystems?
  • What are the implications of these changes for the ecological goods and services (e.g., food provision, blue carbon) that polar seas provide to humans?
  • How can scientific knowledge on these topics be made available to the public?


  • Exploring the effects of environmental drivers on the spatial and temporal variability of ecosystem functions at different scales (e.g., from a few cm to several 1000s of km)
  • Developing and applying CRITTERBASE, a scientific information system for marine sample-based biological data
  • Analysing and up-scaling of spatio-temporal patterns using modeling approaches (forecasting)
  • Creating customized information products for knowledge transfer to other stakeholders in a comprehensible way (e.g., decision makers in politics, administration and business, schools, general public)

Responsible persons

Thomas Brey, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven, Functional Ecology

Dieter Piepenburg, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven, Functional Ecology

Jennifer Dannheim, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven, Functional Ecology

Katharina Teschke, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven, Functional Ecology

Kerstin Jerosch, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven, Functional Ecology

Jan Beermann, Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven, Functional Ecology

Projects we participate in

Pan-Arctic Information System for Benthic Biota (PANABIO)
Weddell Sea Marine Protected Area (WSMPA)
Coastal ecosystem carbon balance in times of rapid glacier melt (CoastCarb)