Interactions between land ecosystems, atmosphere, and climate

Dr. Sönke Zaehle has been the new director at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry.

June 11, 2020

Dr. Sönke Zaehle was recently appointed as new director at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry. Since May 1, 2020 he is heading the new Department of Biogeochemical Signals. The geo-ecologist investigates how terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere influence each other and which role nutrient cycles play in this interaction.

The aim of Dr. Zaehle's research is to improve our understanding of the interactions between element cycles of the land surface and of the atmosphere on local, regional and global scales, and thus to make better predictions on the impact of climate change. In addition to the essential and climate-relevant cycles of carbon and water, Dr. Zaehle's research focuses on the plant nutrients nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) and their importance for plant growth, water balance and the carbon cycle. Dr. Zaehle combines knowledge about eco-physiological processes with observations and modelling of biogeochemical cycles at different spatial scales. Exemplary questions deal with the effect of nutrient availability on the CO2 fertilization of the vegetation, or the influence of nitrogen input on the storage capacity of carbon in soils. He also investigates how the reactions of terrestrial ecosystems change in a changing climate and what role the exchange with the atmosphere plays in this.

To answer such questions, Dr. Zaehle is developing complex models to simulate biogeochemical element cycles and their dependence on vegetation and soil properties as well as local climate. Based on his expert knowledge of physiological principles of ecosystem processes, he seeks to improve these models and adapt them better to reality. He subsequently tests the improved models with different types of ecosystem and atmospheric observations. His new findings also feed into global models of the Earth system to estimate the impact of increasing human influence on terrestrial ecosystems. The researcher thus fits seamlessly into the profile of the institute and builds heavily on interdisciplinary science.

"We are very much looking forward to working with Sönke Zaehle in the further development of the institute. There is no doubt that he will greatly enrich our Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry with his scientific vision and approach as well as with his personal skills," says Prof. Markus Reichstein, current Managing Director of the Institute. Prof. Susan Trumbore, Director and Head of the Department Biogeochemical Processes, also congratulates on his new leadership position and adds: "His appointment further strengthens our institute’s research expertise on the role of the biosphere in the climate system."

"I am very much looking forward to deepening my research in collaboration with the many colleagues at the MPI-BGC," said Dr. Zaehle. But he also has respect for the many different tasks that await him. However, the successor to emeritus director Prof. Martin Heimann faces unexpected challenges during his first months as director at the institute: due to the corona pandemic, part of the institute's life currently takes place in the home office and on virtual platforms.

Dr. Sönke Zaehle studied geo-ecology and environmental sciences in Braunschweig (Germany) and Norwich (U.K.) and received his doctorate at the University of Potsdam and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Germany). After his post-doctoral period at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement in Gif-sur-Yvette (France), he worked as a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry from 2008. His research was funded, among others, by the European Commission (EC), the European Space Agency (ESA), Microsoft and the German Research Foundation (DFG). He has received several awards, including the Heinz-Maier-Leibnitz Prize of the DFG. Dr. Zaehle contributes to the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and currently heads the consolidator project QUINCY, which is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).

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