Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research

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The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ was established in 1991 and has more than 1,000 employees in Leipzig, Halle/S. and Magdeburg. They study the complex interactions between humans and the environment in cultivated and damaged landscapes. The scientists develop concepts and processes to help secure the natural foundations of human life for future generations.

The main locations are in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg.

The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research belongs to the Helmholtz Association. The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research areas: Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Key Technologies, Structure of Matter, Transport and Space. With more than 32,000 employees in 18 research centres and an annual budget of approximately 3.4 billion euro, the Helmholtz Association is Germany's largest scientific organisation. Its work follows in the tradition of the great natural scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894).

The UFZ´s Research Structure

Research at the UFZ is organized into 34 methodical competence centres, the so-called departments. The large number of departments underlines the large range of competences and approaches at the UFZ. The departments are organized into seven divisions, namely:

  1. Environmental Systems, Computation and Monitoring
  2. Water and Soil Sciences
  3. Terrestrial Ecology
  4. Environmental Technology
  5. Environmental Health
  6. Health Research
  7. Social Sciences

In terms of its fields of research the UFZ focuses on three core subject areas as well as three cross-sectional competence areas (see diagram). These are assigned to the Helmholtz Research Fields of Earth and Environment (Research programme „Terrestrial Environment“ / accounting for 85 percent of UFZ resources), Health (Research Programme “Environmental Health“ / 8 percent) as well as Energy (Research Programmes „Renewable Energies“ and „Technology, Innovation and Society“ / 7 percent).

The research programmes of the Helmholtz Association are evaluated every five years by internationally renowned experts in terms of their scientific excellence and strategic relevance.

Die Forschungsstruktur des UFZ


Core Subject Area: Land use options | Biodiversity | Bioenergy

We must conserve biodiversity – it is worth it. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Biodiversity is imperative for us. It provides healthy and functioning ecosystems and ecosystem services.

Humans have always benefited from the use of biodiversity. No other species on earth has impacted nature to such an extent by shaping and changing landscapes. In doing so mankind has altered and partially irreversibly destroyed biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Although the appreciation of biodiversity appears to have increased on many levels, the rate of implementing appropriate mitigation is still too slow. As a result the European target of stopping the loss of biodiversity by 2010 has clearly been missed. The question now is what kind of world with how much biodiversity we want to have and need in the future.

More than 100 scientists from different disciplines of the natural and social sciences work at the UFZ in search of answers to this question. In doing so we investigate fundamental relationships for example on the impacts of land consumption, fragmented landscapes, invasive species or climate change on plant and animal populations and the functions of ecosystems.

We are trying to find out whether a higher genetic diversity and greater species diversity really ensure that ecosystems are more stable and able to buffer changes.

We regard biodiversity also from an economics point of view, calculate the costs and benefits of making certain decisions and provide systematic knowledge for a sustainable use of the scarce good of biodiversity (TEEB – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, www.teebweb.org). Questions about the risks and opportunities of bioenergy are closely related, as renewable sources of energy are currently dramatically affecting agriculture and forestry, water management, the energy supply and societies. Simulation models help to investigate different development perspectives in the form of scenarios to help make informed decisions about a sustainable bioenergy strategy.

Core Subject Area: Water | Soil

The management of water resources has to be improved, as the access to clean water is a basic human right. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Water is indispensable for all ecological and societal processes. It plays a key role in supporting the rapidly growing world population. It influences ecosystems, biodiversity, landscapes and land uses. Every change to the water and matter cycles – whether from climate change, environmental catastrophes or globalization – changes the form and stability of landscapes and habitats leading to new risks for mankind and the environment.

About 150 scientists from a number of disciplines at the UFZ contribute to these system solutions. We develop innovative methods of chemical analysis and monitoring as well as computer models, in order to make predictions about the ecological condition and estimation of future development of waters and soils. We analyse, which changes are triggered by chemical compounds or stress factors such as floods, long periods of drought or invasive plant and animal species in water bodies. We deal with land use dynamics as the most important driver of the hydrological and matter budgets in river basins and support economics and politics in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive of the European Union. We also examine subsurface water and matter fluxes from the field level down to the pore scale. With the help of the UFZ’s research platform SAFIRA, we are developing management concepts for remediation of megasites (contaminated sites over expansive areas). In water-poor regions of the world accurate balances of water resources as well as new remediation and wastewater technologies support saving water resources and the reuse of wastewater.

Our primary goal is to secure the quantity and quality of existing water resources for both humans and natural ecosystems under the conditions of global change and to create the knowledge base for sustainable water management. Therefore the UFZ has initiated the Water Science Alliance – a network that will strengthen German water research on the national, European and international level (www.watersciencealliance.de).

Core Subject Area: Chemicals in the Environment | Health

Chemicals improve our living conditions, but they also have side effects, against which we need to protect ourselves and the environment. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

We need chemicals in our lives just as we need air to breathe and chemicals essentially improve our living conditions. Knowledge of chemical compounds – of their properties, their behaviour in the environment, their ecotoxicity as well as exposure – is the relevant basis for protecting nature and health.

It is the task of about 150 scientists from fields ranging from environmental chemistry, bioanalytical ecotoxology, analytical chemistry, environmental immunology to genetics to examine the complex behaviour of chemical compounds. In doing so we combine methods of chemical and biological analysis in order to trace contaminants in the environment. We want to find out whether it is ‘the usual suspects’ or whether it is possible that trace elements, transformation products or the combined effects of chemicals can cause problems in the long-term. Here, we are developing model systems to investigate the biological effects of chemicals to find alternatives for animal testing. As test systems we use aquatic organisms such as algae, luminous bacteria, water fleas or fish and / or their embryos. Furthermore, we work on computer programmes that can be used to predict the properties of compounds, environmental behaviour and the toxicity of chemicals.

We also examine how chemicals affect the cells of the immune system and contribute to environment related diseases such as allergies. In this respect, system biology is gaining more significance. This new discipline combines biology, mathematics and physics in experimental and model-based approaches to understand biological processes in cells, tissues and organisms as a whole.

Our goal is to generate data and knowledge on the occurrence, the availability and the impact of chemical compounds in order to be able to better assess their potential risk and thus manage them appropriately. In doing so we make an important contribution to protect humans and the environment.

Cross-Sectional Competence: Social Sciences

Biodiversity, land use, future energy, water resources, soil, chemicals in the environment – all of these have one thing in common: stakeholders from the public and the private sector as well as civil society determine through their actions and decisions, how the environment will develop. How does this work exactly? On which basis, with which knowledge and with which motivations do different stakeholders make their decisions?

Economists, lawyers, sociologists and political scientists at the UFZ analyse how different stakeholders interact within certain societal basic conditions, rules, standards and values – the so-called institutions –, but we must first identify and understand these. We examine negotiation processes between stakeholders (also referred to as governance), through which for example decisions on the use and organization of landscapes might be made. We develop policy instruments such as regulations, charges or tradable permits.

Since many environmental issues and conflicts are at the interface between ecology and economics, it is important to understand how ecological and economic factors interact. Therefore, sociologists of the UFZ are developing integrated methods of analysis together with natural scientists, to arrive at an overall evaluation of alternative decision possibilities. Models and simulationscan therefore be used in the dialogue between scientists and decision-makers from politics and management.

Our goal is to strengthen the practical implementation of environmental research at the UFZ Our work follows the general principle of sustainable development.

Cross-Sectional Competence: Monitoring | Observation

Reliable data on the condition and changes to the environment are necessary, to be able to make political decisions about the environment. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Global change is changing our environment: but where and how exactly? What are the exact local and regional impacts of climate change? Is the filtering function of soils for groundwater impaired? Are soils becoming less arable? Are plants and animals relocating to new habitats? For more precise answers to these questions data collected over a longer period of time is lacking, which would enable changes to be documented and estimates of future developments to be made.

Scientists now want to close this gap, by examining the effects of climate and land use change on terrestrial ecosystems over longer temporal and different spatial scales. For this, we are developing and using innovative methods as well as measuring and sensoring devices that allow a more efficient collection of environmental and climate data Within the context of the Helmholtz project TERENO(www.tereno.net) that involves six Helmholtz Centers, four observatories are in operation: in the northeast German lowlands, in the Eifel and the Lower Rhein, in the area of Leipzig-Halle and in the Alps. Almost an entire spectrum of relevant environmental data is being collected here and analysed using the most modern measuring techniques, by means of geophysics, and remote sensing. In addition to climate data this also includes observations of water and soil quality, biodiversity and atmospheric interactions.

The UFZ climate exploration facility in Bad Lauchstaedt (a large-scale test facility of climate change), as well as MOBICOS (an observation platform especially for watercourses) will also play a specific role here. Furthermore, the research platform MOSAIC of the UFZ unites innovative mapping and monitoring technologies, enabling a high-resolution investigation of complex underground structures. In the future other observatories are planned in the Mediterranean area that will be particularly affected by climate change. These are all to become part of a European network of observatories.

Cross-Sectional Competence: Modeling | Visualization

Data on the environment must be analysed, understood and processed, otherwise they are without meaning. Photo: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Modern environmental research is almost unthinkable without the aid of comprehensive computer models. Although terrestrial environmental research topics can range widely in their immediate focus (e. g. environmental impacts from the loss of biodiversity, water management in water-poor regions, renewable energy and resource efficiency, or the impact of anthropogenic chemicals on biological organisms), scientists often see themselves confronted with similar fundamental problems when developing models to support their research.

The modeling and visualization platform TESSIN (Terrestrial Environmental System Simulation and Integration Network) aims to unite and strengthen the expertise available in different UFZ departments in the field of environmental modeling, to develop and to apply integrated modeling concepts with a system-analytical approach, and to present the results to scientists and decision makers. Increasingly, the focus is on a detailed visualization of real systems. For this numerical methods and research software are developed at the UFZ to generate simulations and visualizations in the UFZ‘s 3D Visualization Center from data collected from the most diverse environmental processes. Many difficulties arise when attempting to represent the spatial heterogeneity of the earth‘s surface and subsurface on different scales, which may extend from the tiniest soil pores to entire river catchments, and 3D visualization is a critical component in the effort to represent reality as closely as possible.

Examples of problems that we have investigated with TESSIN include optimized irrigation systems in agriculture, early warning systems for heavy rain or storms, the computation of water balances for regions with incomplete data, scenarios for the dispersal of contaminants in groundwater and risk analyses for geothermal processes and other subsurface geotechnical engineering projects. Furthermore, modeling the local and global hydrological process is an important component for improving current climate models.

Our primary goal is to improve process understanding on the basis of models and virtual reality and to facilitate a dialogue between scientists and decision makers through better visualization.

Divisions and their Departments

Division: Terrestrial Ecology

Conservation biology - Community Ecology - Soil Ecology

Division: Water and Soil Sciences

Lake Research - River Ecology - Aquatic Ecosystem Analysis - Soil Physics - Hydrogeology - Catchment Hydrology

Division: Environmental System Computation and Monitoring

Computational Landscape Ecology - Computational Hydro Systems - Environmental Informatics - Ecological Modelling - Monitoring and Exploration Technologies

Division: Environmental Technology

Environmental Microbiology - Environmental Biotechnology - Isotope Biogeochemistry - Environmental Engineering - Groundwater Remediation - Bioenergy - Centre for Environmental Biotechnology (UBZ)

Division: Analytics and Ecotoxicology

Analytical Chemistry - Effect-Directed Analysis - Ecological Chemistry - Bioanalytical Ecotoxicology - System Ecotoxicology - Analytical Environmental Chemistry

Division: Health Research

Environmental Immunology - Proteomics - Metabolomics

Division: Social Science

Economics - Urban and Environmental Sociology - Environmental and Planning Law - Environmental Politics


The UFZ is funded by the Federal Government of Germany to 90% and by the German States Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt to 5% respectively.

See also


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External links

  • www.ufz.de - Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ