HomePartnersScientific GoalsField SitesWeatherstationsProjectsPress

DFG-SPP Program 1803

EarthShape: Earth Surface Shaping by Biota


The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) is funding a new priority research program (Schwerpunktprogramm, SPP).The initiative is coordinated by Prof. Todd Ehlers from the Department of Geoscience at the University of Tübingen and Prof. Friedhelm von Blanckenburg from the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. The program allocates €10.2m over two periods of three years each for the project titled: EarthShape: Earth Surface Shaping by Biota.


A common Geoscience paradigm holds that the Earth surface is shaped mainly by climate (eroding soil) and tectonics (building mountains). The EarthShape project challenges this paradigm to explore how in addition biologic processes form soil, influence topography, and thereby shape the Earth surface and modulates the impact of climate change on the Earth surface. The influence of microorganisms, plants, and animals on the formation of soils and the shape of topography is still poorly understood, but new scientific technology now allows to identify their role. Research into biologic controls on topography is particularly important for understanding how future climate and biologic changes will impact the Earth’s surface. 


The four reasearch clusters of the Earth Shape project. 


EarthShape research is conducted in the Chilean Coastal Range that features one of Earth’s most spectacular vegetation gradients and is controlled by climate ranging from arid to humid temperate. It is a natural laboratory to study how biology and topography interact. This latitudinal gradient allows for a “space for time approach” aiming at understanding how the climate change predicted globally can induce biota changes that in turn drive landscape formation. The field area  focuses on the non-Andean part of Chile, and avoids the complexities of formerly glaciated landscapes. It is already well-investigated in terms of neotectonic activity by the German-led IPOC (Integrated Plate boundary Observatory Chile) program. http://www.ipoc-network.org/


EarthShape shall bring together an consortium of different scientific disciplines in the Geosciences, Ecology, Soil Sciences, Hydrology, Microbiology, and Geography to work on a common problem of human relevance. The new and innovative aspect of this Priority Program is the integration of different Bio- and Geoscience communities that work on different time scales. Emphasis is placed on non-anthropogenic geomorphic processes. The project has a strong collaboration with leading Chilean scientists from several disciplines. 


The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft awards priority programs like this to provide a community -driven mechanism for research on the cutting edge of Science. The program aims to fund large research programs with multiple institutions with an emphasis on collaborative science between disciplines. Participation in the project is subject to submission of individual projects at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.


Andean mountain topography formed by interactions between climate, tectonics, and biology.

Photo: Todd Ehlers

Foto from a tropical highland showing how roots reach towards the rock layer to extract nutrients, thereby forming soil.

Photo: Friedhelm von Blanckenburg, GFZ Potsdam