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May 1999

Two NCAR scientists help launch a new German institute

Beth Holland. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Two of NCAR's specialists in connecting atmosphere, plants, and soil are heading to Germany in June. Beth Holland (ACD) and Dave Schimel (CGD) plan to spend two years in their appointments at the new Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, midway between Berlin and Munich. Dave will be one of three directors for the new institute, along with Detlef Schulze (University of Bayreuth, Germany) and Colin Prentice (University of Lund, Sweden). Beth will serve as a professor and group leader in atmospheric chemistry.

"The Max Planck Society decided that biogeochemistry was an important enough area that they should start a whole new institute," explains Beth. She and Dave were involved in planning the facility, which opened in November 1997. Last summer the institute moved to a building that formerly housed a Zeiss optics factory. "This is all part of the post-reunification effort to revitalize science in the former East Germany," Beth says. "When the wall came down, the agreement was that about 16 to 18 new Max Planck institutes would be established in East Germany." The town of Jena features more than 30 scientific institutes and a rich intellectual tradition. Karl Marx earned a doctorate at Friedrich Schiller University, named for the German poet and playwright who made his academic home there.

Beth joined ACD in 1989. Dave, her husband, came to UCAR in 1990 as a visiting project scientist for UCAR's Climate System Modeling Program; he later became a joint CGD/ACD scientist. Both researchers feel that their two years in Europe will enhance their individual careers, stimulate scientific exchange between Europe and the United States, and help broaden NCAR's position in the world of earth systems research.

Dave Schimel. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

"Biogeochemistry is not a field where you can make major breakthroughs from theory [alone]," says Dave. "It's really an empirical discipline. The fact that only those aspects of biogeochemistry that relate to reactive trace species have been studied at NCAR has been a real limitation. In the longer term, we have to find a way to create a more balanced program on the carbon cycle here. I think we're moving in that direction. I think what I learn in Jena will be an incredible jump-start."

Scientists have long debated the global removal of carbon from the atmosphere, the so-called "carbon sink" problem. Slightly over half of the carbon that enters the atmosphere remains unaccounted for. Much is believed to be absorbed by photosynthesis in forests, but the exact amounts are a topic of rich debate. Researchers at Princeton University argued in a Science paper (16 October 1998) that North American forests appear to be absorbing up to 25% of global carbon emissions, more than one might expect given our forest coverage and field studies of carbon uptake by forests.

Dave agrees that "the U.S. and southern Canada are very disproportionately efficient at absorbing carbon," but he adds there is much to learn about how forests in different continents are currently taking up carbon before we even consider they'll respond to climate change: "We don't know how the so-called sinks will behave in the future." While in Germany, Dave will be working on a balanced program of research to include modeling, reanalysis of existing data sets, the design of new observing systems, and plans for several U.S. field studies in the summer of 2000.

Beth's work at NCAR has included examining the interactions between the global carbon and nitrogen cycles. She has analyzed how atmospheric nitrogen deposition influences carbon uptake and how rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide affect ecosystem carbon storage and terrestrial nitrogen cycling.

In Germany, "I'll continue to work on the global nitrogen cycle and its connection to atmospheric chemistry," says Beth. "My focus will be combining robust experimental work with my ongoing modeling work. I'll probably study methane as well, looking at the global budget and working with Colin Prentice to see the changes in methane concentrations over time through the paleoclimate record. These changes have been documented, but the processes driving the changes aren't well documented." Beth will continue to oversee work in ACD and maintain collaborations with other staff during her first year abroad. ACD colleague James Sulzman and his wife, Elizabeth Sulzman, a former NCAR employee now at the University of Colorado, plan to join Beth and Dave at Max Planck next fall once Elizabeth has completed her doctorate. She'll be working on carbon and oxygen isotopes while James coordinates field experiments and modeling efforts.

Beth and Dave are among several NCAR scientists heavily involved as lead authors of sections in the upcoming year-2000 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Meanwhile, they both eagerly await the chance to work with some of the world's top biogeochemists in a concentrated setting--and to bring their new perspectives and connections back to Boulder. "This is an opportunity for us and for NCAR," says Beth. •Bob Henson


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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