People and environment: Where geography becomes tangible

Professor Dr. Britta Stumpe is Head of the Department of General Geography/Human-Environmental Systems at the University of Wuppertal

"Nearly all conflicts on earth have geographical causes," says Karl Walter Hoffmann, Chairman of the Board of German School Geographers (VDSG) in an article in the FAZ newspaper. Thereby he makes it clear how important this subject is, although it is increasingly being ousted from German timetables.

Since 2015, the Institute of Geography and Physical Education at the University of Wuppertal has had a General Geography/Human-Environmental Systems Department, headed by the dedicated scientist Britta Stumpe. "There is human geography and there is physical geography. Both disciplines are fundamentally concerned with explaining space," says the researcher in her introduction. "I work physically geographically and look at space from this perspective. This means, we observe and describe landscape spaces climatologically, geomorphologically, from the point of view of vegetation, hydrologically and from the point of view of the soil. How are these compartments (distribution of a substance in the environment) distributed in space and which processes can be described? First of all, that is what geography is all about." In the interplay of human and physical geography, one looks at what people do and the direct effects on the spaces. Stumpe asks concrete questions such as: "What does it mean for the floor, when people are doing a specific action? What does it mean for the climate and what does it mean for vegetation?"

Geography is tangible...and that is beautiful!

The scientist studied on environmental psychology, among other things, in order to understand how people perceive this physical-geographical space. In it, one investigates e.g. the feeling of sounds and noise, or the feeling for the element water. "Often, one does this in order to work on urban planning. Water is regularly perceived as something relaxing and one tries to use it accordingly in urban planning," she explains. She herself has worked in this area with cognitive maps, which everyone creates individually in their own living environment. In these cases, environmental psychologists want to know why everyone perceives their environment so differently.

The soil is always an intermediate medium

During her doctorate, she conducted intensive research on soils. "In the laboratory I studied the behavior of sex hormones in soils. This refers to the testosterones and estrogens that are introduced into the soil environmental compartment." She is particularly interested in the question of the sewage sludge used in agriculture as a fertilizer. "One would not like to have estrogens in the waste water, which are taken out of the defecator and then are being accumulated in the sewage sludge. And sewage sludge is used to fertilize agricultural land. Thus one gets the concentration of the hormones into the soil." The problem develops, if the soil does not pass on substances as an intermediate storage. Therefore, she and her team work on the questions of the dismantling, the misalignment as well as the enrichment of materials, "and with the C14 method (radio carbon method) we could broadly comprehend this maintenance."

Extinguishing foam and its still unknown consequences

The presence of pollutants in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems is also a subject of intense research in her department in Wuppertal. There are many toxins that we cannot get rid of and that pollute the environment. However, Stumpe does not want to leave it at that, because, "basically, it has to be said that there are inorganic pollutants and there are organic pollutants. The inorganic pollutants are the heavy metals. There are a handful, which are known and which are also well characterized. But the organic pollutants are a pollutant group of tens of thousands of compounds in very different ways." Pesticides such as DDT or atrazine, which are known to be carcinogenic, are repeatedly withdrawn from the market. In Wuppertal, the team is currently working on polyfluorinated surfactants, i.e. toxins that are released into the environment through extinguishing foam. "For a long time, the arising problem with this matter was not know. These toxins are surfactants that are contained in fire extinguishing foam. They were used to extinguish fires with them over a large area. For about five years now, people have been aware of the problem and are trying to understand where spatially contaminated areas occur. The problem of this special group of pollutants is that it is a fluorinated group of pollutants, whose decomposition is not microbially degradable and whose behavior is still unpredictable". This is just one group of pollutants that, like many others, has a great potential for damage.

Minimize dangers for the nutritional base

Primarily, Stumpe's research is always concerned with soil pollution in relation to humans. "The soil is a storage medium or a transfer medium," she explains. This inevitably raises the question of the effects on humans after eating plants grown out of these soils. "There are very different measures. For example, if you have a pollution of heavy metal that is easily absorbed by plants, you would recommend special cultivation measures. Or one would add special sorbents to the soil, which would then bind these pollutants to make them less available to plants." In contrast, organic pollutants are generally degradable, so that additional substances can be added to the soil to strengthen this degradation. "If the danger is too great, then, in the worst case, the soil must be excavated. Stumpe is also working together with LANUV (North Rhine-Westphalia's State Office for Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection) in this area. "In terms of basic research, we are concerned with the basic mechanisms of pollutants in soils. The LANUV works practice-oriented, i.e. on appropriate remediation measures."

Rainwater management in teaching

A further research the focus is on techniques and strategies of rainwater management to adapt to global climate change. This means that water is not an infinite resource. "SInce it is a very tangible topic, I deal with rainwater management mainly during teaching. It is about water management, which is becoming increasingly important in the wake of climate change," she said. Today we know that extreme weather events will increase, both in the form of extreme rainfall and flooding, and also in form of droughts. One tries to buffer precipitation peaks with rainwater management. This happens e.g. by green roofs or rain infiltration systems, reports the researcher. "The students should plan and compute a rain management concept for the University of Wuppertal. Thereby, the can learn to understand the basic principles of the rain water management." The topic of droughts offers the reverse question, since one has to ask oneself, how one gets sufficient humidity into the cities. Where does it make sense to store water temporarily in the city, so that evaporation cools it down?

Successful networking and an exciting excursion to Iceland

Interdisciplinary work and networking with other partners has already begun successfully. Stumpe promotes all cooperations, whether it be within the University, with the civil engineers (Prof. Rinklebe is internationally known for his research on alluvial soils), ministerially through cooperation with the LANUV or citywide with the Junior Uni, the Wupperverband or the Station Natur und Umwelt.
This year, the department offers a special highlight in the area of excursions. Excursions are a compulsory part of the study program. A group of 20 students travels to Iceland. As part of the module 'Regional Geography', they will look at an example of a space from different perspectives of geography. Under the premise of the importance of the region, the capital Reykjavik is considered from an economic and touristic point of view. But, the focus is also on natural feature,s such as the volcanoes and geysers, which are typical for the country.

GeoIT: Special laboratory circumstances for pupils

For about a year now, a Schülerlabor has been running. It is directed to pupils from the eighth grade onwards. The Schülerlabor is an EU project with a unique characteristic. The project is supported by the European Fund for Regional Development (EFRE). "We work with drones and try to make the world tangible for pupils from the bird's eye view. Pupils explore the environment with different camera systems in three different modules. "The first one is called "Wärmeinsel Stadt" and works with the thermal camera. Here, we use the drone to fly above the campus. Then, the students stand at the tablets and are able to observe and analyze the thermal temperature development on the surface via the drone. The second module deals with smart farming by equipping another drone with a multi-spectral camera. "It then flies above agricultural land and records the chlorophyll content of the plants. Thus their vitality is being described". The images provide information about less vital arable land, which can then be fertilized as needed. "And the third module focuses on renewable energies such as photovoltaics. For this module we use a digital camera that is coupled to a drone. The students then translate the digital images into 3D models and use them to plan photovoltaic systems on the roofs of the University of Wuppertal".
The recurring question of the environmental impact of human activities on the compartments is a research concern of the geography professor Britta Stumpe. In times of 'Fridays for Future' this is certainly one of the most important tasks of science. Therefore, the Chairman of the Board of German School Geographers is right to say: Geography is the core subject of the 21st century.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 26, 2020)


Britta Stumpe studied Geography at the Ruhr University in Bochum and earned her doctorate there. Since 2015, she has been Professor of General Geography, specializing in Human-Environment at the University of Wuppertal.


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