Prof. Norbert Frank

Norbert on board RV Meteor Azores 2018


Physics of Environmental Archives


Address Im Neuenheimer Feld 229
Room 420
Phone 546332
E-mail Norbert.Frank (at)
Group Physik der Umweltarchive


I have studied physics at Heidelberg University and greatly enjoyed the work as student representative at the time. During my Diploma project and subsequent PhD I have explored natural radionuclides (Thorium, Protactinium, and Uranium Isotopes) in deep sea ferro-manganese crusts and nodules, hemipelagic sediments, secondary carbonates such as travertine, speleothems, and corals. I worked out a new and very simple analytical method to extract and purify Pa from such archives (Frank et al. NIMB 1995), which allowed for cross dating using the 230Thxs and 231Paxs methods. It turned out that 231Pa behaves in the ocean more complex than generally assumed, which I thought must be a state change of Pa - oxygenation, but this claim was never accepted by the scientific community and remains unproven. Thus, I move to the precise dating of dirty carbonates and had the chance to be at the start of a far-reaching new research field that has been growing ever since thanks to steady technological advances in mass spectrometry.

Asked for the most important finding, I suppose it was the discovery of the age of a carbonate crust underneath the city of Troy that apparently dated back into times described by Homer in the Ilyas (Frank et al. Archaeometry 2002). The second most important finding was the dating of deep-sea corals and the possibility to extract the radiocarbon age of water, which was published in Nature (Mangini et al. Nature 1998). Another aspect of this start into a research career was the realization that team work is most important, as are international contacts, curiosity and the wish to help students into science. By the end of my PhD I had supervised a large number of student projects, wrote scientific proposals, organized the first national 231Pa workshop in Heidelberg, and was with two fellow doctoral students (Andreas Bollhöfer and Christopher Strobl) creating a social life of the team including a field trip to the nearby Karst regions. Note, my PhD was a project between two research groups, the one of Prof. Augusto Mangini (Heidelberg Academy of Science) who I acknowledge as my most important scientific mentor. Prof. Günther Wagner from the Max Plack Institute of Nuclear Physics was the second mentor who lifted the curtain about Archaeometry and Archeology and as such he was a mentor who allowed me to meet Prof. Manfred Korfmann, who at the time was leading the excavations at Troy. This way I had the chance to evolve in two distant research fields at the same time, which I kept ever since.

Through the past two decades, my work was centered on these distant fields, the processes driving metal transport in the ocean over climate time scales and the high precision dating of secondary carbonates in general and in cases of archeological sites of early humans in Europe. During my research training I was lucky enough to receive a prestigious DFG postdoctoral fellowship to conduct research at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University (New York), where I was working with Prof. Steven Goldstein and Prof. Sidney Hemming. Two Giants in science, which have revealed to me a very different strategy to approach scientific questions than I had learned at Heidelberg University. During my time at Lamont I had the chance to meet many postdoctoral fellows, who later on became famous for their discoveries (Prof. Jess Adkins, Prof. Gideon Henderson, Prof. Randye Rutberg, Prof. Pierre Friedlingstein, Prof. Marina Levy, Prof. Alex Piotrowski, and many others). Subsequently I came back to Heidelberg University but this time to the Earth Science Department.

Back then, I initiated the use of continental secondary carbonates for climate science in Heidelberg, which was funded by the DFG and led ultimately to envision the DFG research group DAPHNE. In 2000 I obtained the opportunity to lead the Neodymium isotope sampling during my first research cruise to the South Atlantic on-board RV Meteor. An unforgettable cruise in partly more than 10 m high swell. Instead of further proceeding in the Marine Science directions I obtained a second prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, an individual Marie Curie fellowship, and moved to Paris, where certainly the most important evolution of my career took place.

The former director Dr. Laurent Turpin selected me for a permanent staff scientist position at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Science (LSCE) at the French CEA and CNRS (Gif-sur-Yvette/Saclay). During the following 12 years in France I achieved a new analytical infra-structure for isotope geochemistry, including the multi-collector inductively coupled plasma source mass spectrometer and ultra-clean laboratories. I had the chance as team leader to develop the research team in new science directions, and obtained funding for the exploration of cold-water corals as a novel climate archive, including the first cruise, which I led as chief scientist to Iceland. My colleagues at LSCE where a source of great enthusiasm and excitement, but also culture, politics and food. Many new ideas came to light and climate modelling became a visible part of the science work. It is impossible to mention all the important influencing people along the way, but Dr. Martine Paterne helped shape my vision of science and supported all my actions, Prof. Matthieu Roy-Barman who sadly passed away much to early wrote the book I always wanted to write (Marine Geochemistry) and I will forever miss the discussions about radionuclides in the ocean and mass spectrometry. Prof. Christoph Colin showed me that teaching is hard work but very rewarding, and that radiogenic isotopes are most important tools not only in Paleoceanography.

Dr. Christine Hatté was the first person I met who successfully combined modelling and experimental work on the modern and past carbon cycle (in soils) and made me work out the idea that cold-water corals in the eastern Atlantic Ocean in dependence of climate (Frank et al. Geology 2011).  The reward of all this work was the career of many of the students I had supervised along the way, the funded projects, the French language and culture and ultimately my habilitation in 2010 at the University Versailles St. Quentin as well as the nomination as Senior Expert of the CEA. Ultimately the CEA special award for the new infra-structure. Finally, I must also thank Dr. Martine Paterne for selecting me in first place and for her rigor in science, to which I will never stand. Dr. Guy Cabioch from IRD Paris, who also passed away much to early kept my eyes watching for the tropical corals as climate archives and it took me more than 10 years after his death to come back to the subject I wanted to continue on with him.

In 2012 I than accepted the position of Professor in Physics and Earth Sciences at Heidelberg University. I became director of the Institute of Environmental Physics. Since then, the team has developed a broad research program from past climate reconstructions using climate archives to the detection and quantification of atmospheric water transport and greenhouse gases. Again, a large analytical infra-structure was built. Two research cruises, one to the Mid-latitude North Atlantic seamounts and the one to the Mediterranean Sea were conducted and new research cooperation's led to the study of speleothems around the world. Many colleagues supported my work here too.

I contribute widely to the teaching in Physics and Earth Science and I was honored by the teaching award of the Faculty of Physics in 2018. I have supervised, mentored, supported, and examined a large number of students at all stages of their career including the onetime participation to a mentoring program of the Leibniz Society. I act as reviewer for numerous journals and funding bodies, and I am associate member of the editorial board of the recently founded journal EGU Geochronology. I am an active member in the Geochemical Society, AGU, and DPG. My career has been and still is driven by the people and in particular the students I have the chance to get to know and work with, it is the sum of endless influences.

To close I cite Albert Einstein (a citation found on internet): I don't teach my students, I provide the circumstances in which they can learn.

Research interests

  • The physics of (past)climates and the geochemical cylces of elements (in particular within the ocean) are my main research instrests. I appraoch the field via the study of natural archives such as corals and speleothems, but also marine sediments. Those can be accurately dated using natural radioactive nuclides and furthermore store information on past climate dynamics, climate state variables and elemental cycles, including the carbon cycle. However, I am also interested in archeometry, the link between climate and human societies and technological developments of mass spectrometry.

Selected publications

  • 420,000 year assessment of fault leakage rates shows geological carbon storage is secure Johannes M. Miocic, Stuart M. V. Gilfillan, Norbert Frank, Andrea Schroeder-Ritzrau, Neil M. Burnside and R. Stuart Haszeldine. Nature Scientific Reports, 9, Article number: 769 (2019) (go to)
  • Barium isotopes in cold-water corals Freya Hemsing, Yu-Te Hsieh, Luke Bridgestock, Peter T. Spooner, Laura F. Robinson, Norbert Frank, Gideon M. Henderson
    Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 491, 183-192 (2018) (go to)
  • Two 'pillars' of cold-water coral reefs along Atlantic European margins: Prevalent association of Madrepora oculata with Lophelia pertusa, from reef to colony scale S Arnaud-Haond, IMJ Van den Beld, R Becheler, C Orejas, L Menot, N Frank, A Grehan, JF Bourillet, Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 145, 110-119 (2017) (go to)
  • The earliest settlers of Mesoamerica date back to the late Pleistocene Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, Julia Becker, Fabio Hering, Eberhard Frey, Arturo González González, Jens Fohlmeister, Sarah Stinnesbeck, Norbert Frank, Alejandro Terrazas Mata, Martha Elena Benavente, Jerónimo Avilés Olguín, Eugenio Aceves Núñez, Patrick Zell, Michael Deininger, PlosOne, 12/8 (2017) (go to)
  • High precision U-series dating of scleractinian cold-water corals using an automated chromatographic U and Th extraction Anne-Marie Wefing , Jennifer Arps , Patrick Blaser , Claudia Wienberg, Dierk Hebbeln, Norbert Frank, Chemical Geology, 475, 140-148 (2017) (go to)
  • Characterizing tufa barrages in relation to channel bed morphology in a small karstic river by airborne LiDAR topo-bathymetry Jörn Profe, Bernhard Höfle, Martin Hämmerle, Frank Steinbacher, Mon-Shieh Yang, Andrea Schröder-Ritzrau, Norbert Frank, Proceedings of the Geologists' Association; 127, 6, 664–675, (2016) (go to)
  • Strong and deep Atlantic meridiornal overturning circulation during the last glacial cycle E. Böhm , J. Lippold, M. Gutjahr, M. Frank, P. Blaser, B. Antz, J. Fohlmeister, N. Frank, M.B. Andersen, M. Deininger, Nature 517, 73-76, (2015) (go to)
  • The geochemistry of deep-sea coral skeletons: A review of vital effects and applications for palaeoceanography, L. F Robinson, J. F Adkins, N. Frank, A. C Gagnon, N. G Prouty, E Brendan Roark, T. van de Flierdt, Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 99, 184-198 (2014)
  • Li/Mg systematics in scleractinian corals: Calibration of the thermometer, P. Montagna, M. McCulloch, E. Douville, M. López Correa, J. Trotter, R. Rodolfo-Metalpa, D. Dissard, C. Ferrier-Pagès, N. Frank, A.Freiwald, S. Goldstein, C. Mazzoli, S. Reynaud, A. Rüggeberg, S. Russo, M. Taviani, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 132,288-310 (2014)
  • A high-resolution coral-based 14C record of surface water processes in the Western Mediterranean Sea, N. Tisnérat-Laborde, P. Montagna, M. McCulloch, G. Siani, S. Silenzi, N. Frank, Radiocarbon, 55, 1617-1630 (2013)
  • Northeastern Atlantic cold-water coral reefs and climate Frank, N., Freiwald, A., Lopez Correa, M., Eisele, M., Hebbeln, D., Wienberg, C., van Rooij, D., Colin, C., van Weering, T., de Haas, H., Roberts, M., Buhl-Mortensen, P., B. de Mol, Douville, P., Blamart, D., and Hatte, C., Geology, 39, 743-746 (2011) (go to)
  • Neodymium isotopic composition of deep-sea corals from the NE Atlantic: implications for past hydrological changes during the Holocene C. Colin, N. Frank, K. Copard, E. Douville, Quaternary Science Reviews 29, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.05.012 (2010)
  • Transferring radiometric dating of the last Interglacial sea level high stand to marine and ice core records C. Waelbroeck, N. Frank, J. Jouzel, F. Parrenin, V. Masson-Delmotte, D. Genty, EPSL, 265, 183-194 (2008)
  • Open system U-series ages of corals from a subsiding reef in New Caledonia: Implications for Holocene sea level rise, and subsidence rate N. Frank, L.Turpin, G. Cabioch, D. Blamart, C. Colin, M. Tressens-Fedou, P. Bonhomme, and P. Jean-Baptist, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 249, 274-289 (2006)
  • A new technique for precise uranium-series dating of travertine micro-samples R. Mallick and N. Frank, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 66/24, 4261-4272 (2002)
  • Start of the last interglacial period at 135 ka: Evidence from a high Alpine stalagmite Spötl, A. Mangini, N. Frank, R. Eichstädter, S. Burns, Geology 30, 815-818 (2002)
  • 230Th/U dating of the Trojan water quarries N. Frank, A. Mangini, and G. Wagner, Archeometry 44/2, 305-314 (2002)
  • Coral provides way to age deep water Mangini, M. Lomitschka, R. Eichstädter, N. Frank, S. Vogler, G. Bonani, I. Hajdas and J. Pätzold, Nature 392, 347, (1998)