Geography for Mankind

October 4, 2004

The sudden death at the age of 68 of Professor Frithjof Voss, a Rolex Associate Laureate in 1996, has saddened all those who supported his work. He won his Award for developing a method of fighting the scourge of desert locusts. Through the foundation he established, his heritage will be passed on to other geographers.

From academics to application
“The things I do are not prompted by any particular work ethic, but rather by my ability to get enthusiastic about a cause” – it was thus that Frithjof Voss described, shortly before his death, his motivation throughout his distinguished career. An internationally respected geographer, he worked on several continents before being appointed professor of geography at the Technical University of Berlin in 1981. Throughout his life, Voss tried to put the practical application of geography to the use of mankind, at the same time proving that it is possible to earn a successful living as a geographer in an increasingly competitive international academic environment. Before his death on 16 May 2004, he was working to develop a new technique to measure the extent of traffic jams using infrared cameras.

Locating locusts
A Rolex Associate Laureate in 1996, Voss’s greatest success was undoubtedly adapting sophisticated satellite-image technology to fight desert locusts in Africa and China. These insects are a global scourge; they form huge swarms that can destroy, in a matter of hours, entire fields of crops capable of supplying a city of 100,000 inhabitants. Locusts cause millions of dollars worth of damage every year. In cooperation with one of the United Nations’ specialised agencies and the German Technical Cooperation Agency, Voss set up prototypes to fight these disasters. The principle was to set up an early-warning system using a satellite to monitor the habitat and breeding conditions of the locusts, in order to exterminate them before they reached adult age. On the ground, groups equipped with mobile portable receivers then identified and destroyed the locusts. The procedure was used to good effect by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Although it was a success from the technical point of view, the procedure’s implementation was hamstrung by politics, as the locusts’ habitat was often in sensitive and remote areas. But Voss’s struggle was not in vain. “We know that his work will survive him,” says Christian Schmelter, one of his closest colleagues. For Frithjof Voss had transmitted his passion for geography and its practical usefulness for a better world to many fellow staff and students.

Innovation and inspiration
As well as the satellite procedure, Professor Voss developed an innovative system consisting of electrical wire fencing that kills insects instantly on contact, thereby preventing the pollution caused by the most frequently used means of fighting locusts and other insects today: the spraying of chemical products that are relatively ineffective and harm the environment.

In 2000, inspired by the Rolex Awards, Frithjof Voss created his own prize to encourage future generations of German geographers. He used his savings, accumulated during his work around the world, to establish prizes worth €10,000 each. These awards will continue to be granted every two years thanks to his loyal colleagues. Günter Heinritz, one of the people in charge of the Frithjof Voss Foundation for Geography, explains: “We were deeply affected by the sudden and totally unexpected death of Professor Voss, and are all the more motivated to pursue his work with the same passion he had for geography. He particularly wished to extend a helping hand to young geographers. We will continue fulfilling that wish even after his death.”

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