Switzerland can look back on a long and well-received polar research tradition, which also received an institution for coordination and support with the establishment of the Swiss Polar Institute as of 2016. Now that the SPI has the status of a research institution of national importance since 2021, the way has been cleared also to fund large-scale polar research initiatives. The first two were officially launched Wednesday night in a formal ceremony.
In the domed hall of the University of Bern, Dr. Francesca Pellicciotti from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL and Professor Julia Schmale from the ETH Lausanne presented their respective research initiatives. The event was of great national and international interest; in addition to personalities from research, federal administration and embassy representatives from other nations, over 60 people from 19 countries also participated online. The high mountains of Central Asia and the fjord landscape of southern Greenland are the two geographic regions where research initiatives funded by the Swiss Polar Institute will be carried out in the coming years. In doing so, both focus on the impacts of climate change on the various aspects of the environment and the people in the areas. For this purpose, both projects are divided into six different parts (clusters), in which the influences and effects of climate change are examined in more detail. The results are then placed in a larger context in order to obtain an overall picture that is also intended to be representative of the situation in Switzerland.
SPI Flagship Initiatives are multi-year programs that combine science and technology projects from different disciplines and different groups/institutions in Switzerland around a polar focus region. Funding focuses on field campaigns (logistics, security, etc.), data management, outreach, and program coordination, providing a temporary infrastructure for a Swiss-led polar research program.
Both projects have already been launched on February 24 and March 9, 2022, respectively, but an official presentation of the projects has been missing so far. While Dr. Pellicciotti’s PAMIR flagship is dedicated to the high alpine region (also known as the third pole) of the Pamir Mountains, the GreenFjord flagship is investigating the environmental and societal interactions related to climate change in South Greenland. To this end, the research initiative has been divided into six clusters, each of which in turn investigates several research questions. The results can then be used in other clusters for their questions. For example, the “Cryosphere” cluster examines the quantities of freshwater that are introduced into a fjord system by glaciers, and the resulting effects on organisms in the ocean near the glacier are used in the “Biodiversity” (species composition), “Oceans” (nutrient inputs), and “Humans” (fisheries and food) clusters. This interdisciplinary approach should provide a more accurate picture of how climate change will affect and alter the Arctic region. Each cluster is worked on by its own research group and in total GreenFjord currently consists of 40 national and international participants. From a Swiss perspective, in addition to the EPF Lausanne, the universities of Lausanne and Zurich, the ETH Zurich and the WSL are also involved. Since the project will generate a huge amount of data, the Swiss Data Science Center is also on board.
The Narsaq region, which serves as the study area within the GreenFjord flagship, is located in southwestern Greenland. According to Professor Schmale, all the conditions that are important for the research initiative’s questions can be found here. She sees the region, which has been inhabited by humans for the longest time on Greenland, with its distinctive fjord systems and ice sheet that extends to the edge, as particularly impacted by climate change. “Fjord systems lie at the interface between the cryosphere, ocean, land, atmosphere and biosphere,” she explained in her presentation at the launch ceremony. “They are also enormously important for the inhabitants as living environment.” That’s why the various research teams here want to study not only the natural science aspects of climate change, but also the socio-cultural consequences. To this end, Professor Schmale also wants to work closely with the local population. “We are seeking a better understanding of how carbon and nutrient cycles are changing. Among other things, we also want to understand how food webs and potential fishing grounds will change in the future,” Julia Schmale explains. Because in the end, it is the people of the region who have to live with the consequences. And Switzerland can make a significant contribution to this with this flagship initiative.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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