Ecosystem Research, Geoarchaeology and Polar Ecology

Photo Rano RarakuHumans have influenced the development of the Earth's landscapes for a long time. Land use practices changed ecosystems. The cultivation of crops and livestock farming released traces in soils, in sediments and in the topography of the landscape. For thousands of years, people have been modifying the water balance and matter cycles by land use.

Due to their extreme environmental conditions and inaccessibility, the Arctic and Antarctic are still among the least studied regions on earth. However, the processes taking place here are not limited in their effects to the polar regions, but are of global importance.

Photo Polar EcologyWe use ecosystem research and geoarchaeological methods to investigate when, where, how and why people have used the Earth's landscapes and oceans. We investigate the consequences of land use and the interactions between human cultures and changes in ecosystems, as well as the effects of climate change and extreme weather events on ecosystems, land use and cultures.

Our research areas are located in Central, Southern, Southeastern and Eastern Europe, Turkey, Ethiopia, Siberia and the Arctic Ocean, in Latin America and on islands in the Pacific Ocean (Easter Island, Robinson Crusoe Island, Palau, etc.), the Atlantic Ocean (US Virgin Islands, Madeira, etc.) and the Northern and Southern Ocean.

The department publishes the international scientific journal Polar Biology (Springer).

Database with the publication of the former Institute of Polar Ecology (IPÖ), including a Compilation of publications since 1982

Members of the Department

Research projects

Project sector: Research in continental ecosystems

Geoarchaeological and geomorphological investigations in Hedeby (Schleswig-Holstein, Germany)


Geoarchaeological and geomorphological investigations on the North Frisian islands of Pellworm, Amrum and Föhr (Schleswig-Holstein, Germany)


Geoarchaeological and geomorphological investigations on the island Olchon in Lake Baikal (Siberia, Russia)


Project sector: Investigation of island ecosystems

Rapa Nui  (Easter Island, Chile: Changes and interrelations of land use and culture)


Robinson-Crusoe-Island (Chile): Historic change of landscape and ecoystems


Babeldaob (Palau, Micronesia): Investigation of genesis and function of prehistoric earthworks

Babeldaob is the largest island in the Micronesian Palau archipelago. The relief of a large part of the island is characterized by monumental, terraced earthworks. This anthropogenic transformation of the landscape is the earliest evidence of monumentality on the Pacific islands. According to the current state of research, the earthworks are at least 2000 years old. However, key questions about the chronology, genesis, function, and use of the terraced hills are still largely unanswered. Did the terraces serve as settlement areas? Have they been used for horticulture? Did they have a religious significance? Or were they use for defense? The three-year project funded by the German Research Foundation is now investigating these questions. The project is led by Hans-Rudolf Bork and Andreas Mieth (Institute for Ecosystem Research) in cooperation with Burkhard Vogt (German Archaeological Institute, Bonn). Project coordinator and excavation director in Palau is Annette Kühlem (Institute for Ecosystem-Research). more

Madeira (Portugal): Genesis of agricultural terrace systems


Project sector: CRC 1266 "Scales of Transformation - Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies"

Subproject F2: Socio-ecologicla transformations and interrelations


Subproject D1: Tripolye-Cucuteni settlements


Projektbereich Polarökologie

Joint project: WTZ Russia – CATS / Change of the Arctic Transpolar System; Subprojekt: Ecologicla consequences of climate change in Sibirian shelf seas


Timeless Arctic – commercial hunting in the reconstruction of human impact in Svalbard

Under the title “Timeless Arctic – commercial hunting in the reconstruction of human impact in Svalbard”, my project takes us on a journey to Svalbard (Spitsbergen) from its first documentation by Willem Barents in 1596 till the present day. The popular image of polar bears roaming an untouched white wilderness is false. For over four centuries, human ingenuity and enterprise have had irrevocable consequences for the Arctic ecosystems. “Timeless” is an intentional play on words: it hints at the supposed timelessness of the region as well as the circumstance that there is no data to prove the opposite.

Svalbard is exceptional in the pan-Arctic context. There were no indigenous peoples. What we witness today is the uniquely undistorted impression of commercially-motivated hunting by Europeans in a peripheral region. “Timeless Arctic” has the scientific goal of quantifying the predominantly anecdotal references to hunting whale, walrus, polar bear, Arctic fox, and Svalbard reindeer, thereby generating new data sets. These will enable 1) the recognition of long-term trends in the anthropogenic impact on the polar environment and 2) the development of proxies and models to describe and explain the historical processes. Since all available sources will be consulted, it is a parallel strategic goal to synthesise the corpus of historical-archaeological knowledge into a research framework for the archipelago in order to standardise and regulate future prognoses and courses of action.

The historical materials for “Timeless Arctic” are diverse and multi-faceted. Logbooks, diaries, expedition reports, travel accounts, and company files in different languages, drawings, photos, and more are partly published or kept in international archives and libraries; Norwegian museums house archaeozoological collections from Svalbard; additional data will be collected during envisaged fieldwork in the islands. The results will primarily be presented in peer-reviewed journals and as an open-access database.

The value and contribution of “Timeless Arctic”, in which the uniqueness of Svalbard acts as a lab for the effects of commercial hunting, lies in the generation of crucial time-depth, which has not been possible through biological observation and simulation. Only a high temporal resolution will enable differentiated reflection on the past and allow for prognoses and science-based decision-making to benefit environmental education, ecological policy, and ecosystem management in the medium- to long-term.

YouTube video “Timeless Arctic”

Project sector: Cluster of Excellence “ROOTS - Social, Environmental, and Cultural Connectivity in Past Societies”