Remembering Professor Dr. Erwin Suess

Professor Dr Erwin Suess passed away on 28 September 2023 at his home in Corvallis, Oregon, after a long illness. He had a strong influence on the development of marine geosciences in Germany and the United States of America. His work was very broad-based, and he always aimed to discover unknown phenomena and break new ground in research.

Professor Suess’s career connects Germany and the United States of America: After his diploma in geology at the University of Giessen, he went to Kansas State University in the United States in 1964 on a Fulbright scholarship to continue his studies. After completing his Master’s degree in 1966, he accepted a doctoral position at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania. He received his doctorate there in 1968 and then went to the University of Hawaii as a postdoc. In 1970, he returned to Germany and took up a position as assistant professor at Kiel University (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, CAU). He then moved back to the States where he was a professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis from 1976 to 1988.

In 1989, Professor Suess returned to Kiel again to help establish the newly founded GEOMAR research centre together with Jörn Thiede, Roland von Huene and Hans-Ulrich Schmincke. Acting as its director from 1995 to 1999, he prepared the merger with the Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel (Institut für Meereskunde, IfM), which eventually led to the founding of IFM-GEOMAR, today’s GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. After his retirement in 2004, he returned to Corvallis to continue his research there. Without Erwin Suess, GEOMAR would not exist in its current form.

While still a Master’s student at Kansas State University, Erwin Suess published a paper on the classification of opal minerals formed by grasses that can be used as an archive of environmental change.This widely-cited publication provided the basis for numerous paleoclimatic and physiological studies. During his doctoral thesis at Lehigh University and his post-doctoral period in Hawaii, he mainly investigated the reactions between carbonates and dissolved organic substances in seawater. Among other aspects, he discovered that many organic substances adsorb on the surface of carbonate particles, which changes the solubility of carbonates on the one hand and the reactivity of organic substances on the other. He published a series of papers on this topic that count as important foundations for understanding the marine carbon cycle today.

As an assistant professor in Eugen Seibold’s working group in Kiel, he studied sediments deposited in the Baltic Sea. He showed how material cycles in the Baltic Sea are influenced by microbial and geochemical processes in the sediment and discovered a number of new minerals that are formed in these sediments and can be used to reconstruct environmental conditions.

At Oregon State University, he initially focused his research on the marine carbon cycle. Among other things, he published a classic paper on export production in the world ocean and the functioning of the biological carbon pump, which has been cited more than 1000 times to date, as well as several fundamental papers on carbon turnover in upwelling areas and marine sediments. He also developed new approaches to reconstruct changes in ocean productivity using sedimentary archives and chemical parameters. Over time, he became increasingly interested in hot and cold springs on the seafloor. He discovered the first cold springs in subduction zones and was able to show that similar communities and minerals develop there as at the hot hydrothermal vents of the mid-ocean spreading centres.

At GEOMAR, he continued his work on dehydrating processes at active continental margins and discovered rather accidentally that large quantities of methane hydrates are formed there. This led to a series of research projects in which he investigated the role of methane hydrates in the climate system and the use of methane hydrates as a raw material for energy production. In addition, he set up a collaborative research centre at GEOMAR that for the first time investigated the turnover of substances in subduction zones in detail.

During his career, Erwin Suess trained many students who now play important roles in German and international marine research. He was a role model for many of us and we are grateful for the opportunities he opened up for us. He inspired and encouraged us to break new ground in research with his personal integrity, profound knowledge, creativity and never-ending energy and curiosity. We miss him very much and will always remember him.