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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Section: Science Life
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Published: 08.03.2007, 06:00
Modified: 07.03.2007, 22:10
Site visit to the NFS Klima
“We need a bigger programme”

The National Priority Research Programme Climate (NFS Klima), in which ETH Zurich is also involved with various researchers, has been running for six years. The annual Site Visit, during which international experts assess the Swiss climatologists’ work, took place at ETH Zurich in the week from 26 February 2007. The scientists are clearly satisfied with the achievements so far. Christoph Schär, Professor at the Institute for Atmosphere and Climate of ETH Zurich, explained in an interview why climate research in Switzerland should nonetheless receive greater emphasis.

Interview by Felix Würsten

Professor Schär, the NFS Klima came under the microscope again during a site visit this week. What is your overall assessment?

Of course we do not yet know the experts’ opinion, but I do think that overall the programme has performed very well. Our output is very considerable relative to our funding. We are recognised internationally and in recent years we have published several papers that were widely admired.

What actually happens during a site visit such as this?

Typically one is visited by about eight international experts who assess the status of the projects. There is a public section with posters and presentations. However the experts also look at individual studies in detail. There are also internal discussions in a small circle in which strategic questions are dealt with. Finally the experts make recommendations, for example which areas should be the focus of work in the Third Phase 2009-2013.

The NFS Klima was begun six years ago. Has this national programme proved to be a successful instrument?

In our case clearly yes. Various strong partners work together in the NFS Klima, including the core partners Bern University and ETH Zurich, whose competencies complement each other well. Collaboration between the partners functions extremely well. At the same time it was important that we came under social pressure at an early stage and were compelled to formulate a common position on central questions. This reaching of a consensus – and the firm belief that we were working together on an important topic – has had a beneficial effect on the collaboration.

In the meantime other countries such as Germany or England are investing heavily in climate research. Can Switzerland keep pace with them?

We are the smallest of all the national priority research programmes, even though we are working on a topic of very great international importance. The annual funding of the entire NFS Klima is 2.5 million Swiss francs. Thus Switzerland occupied a ground-breaking role when the programme began. That is no longer true today. In my opinion a programme extending far beyond what already exists should now be launched. Therefore we are also discussing whether Switzerland needs a “National Adaptation Plan”. One must keep the circumstances in mind: every year we spend hundreds of millions of Swiss francs on flood defences and billions on agriculture – both of them areas affected greatly by climate change. We also have a problem in the building industry: the houses we are building today are no longer optimum from the energy management and structural engineering point of view for the summer climate in the future. So it would be worthwhile providing more funding to gain a better understanding of the effects of climate change and to put this knowledge into practice.

For you as a researcher, is it really satisfying that climate change is now causing such a big stir on the political-social stage?

Absolutely. However it is still sometimes rather disappointing to see how slowly the political mills grind. For example the CO2 tax on fuels is still a long time coming. Nevertheless, in retrospect many things really have started to move in the last 15 years. Climate change was a peripheral topic when I returned from the USA in 1992. Against this backdrop the speed at which it has changed really is astonishing. Not so long ago hardly anyone would have thought that the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would meet with such a large response throughout the world – a report, incidentally, on which more than ten researchers from the NFS Klima worked as co-authors.

“We will have an unaccustomed summer climate,” explains climatologist Christoph Schär. large

The example of the present winter shows what climate warming will mean for winter sports resorts: there is a lack of snow everywhere, for example here in Wildhaus. large

The present winter is unusually warm – a foretaste of the future?

This winter was about 3 degrees warmer than the long-term average – which corresponds approximately to what will be the normal situation in 50 years time. We are now also seeing very tangibly the effects it will have, for example for the skiing regions. However, it is basic fact that the winter climate shows large natural variability. That’s why the changes will not be taken so seriously at this time of year. The situation with the summer looks different. In that case we expect an average temperature increase of approx. 5 degrees by the end of the century – which is five times more than today’s standard deviation of 1 degree! We will have a climate we do not know from the past. Simulating such conditions in the model is a big challenge for us..

Which other major tasks in the climate modelling field still remain to be mastered?

Primarily they involve gaining a better understanding of the key processes in the climate system and replicating them more accurately in the climate models. That includes putting into practice the advances in the high performance computing area, for example by developing models with higher resolution and by calculating with more ensembles to improve the statistics. A second important aim is to replace the climate scenarios usual at present with probabilistic forecasts for periods of 10 to 100 years. If one wants to study what the new conditions actually mean for society, it is important to develop regional predictions about climate and extreme events with information about their probability. That would also allow more accurate figures to be put on the consequential costs of climate change.

The NFS Klima

175 scientists from a wide variety of disciplines have been working together in the National Priority Research Programme Climate (NFS Klima) (1) since 2001. The "Leading House" of the consortium is the University of Bern; ETH Zurich is heavily involved in two of the four Work Packages. The research programme is currently in its second phase, which will be completed in 2009.

The NFS Klima research projects are divided into four Work Packages (WP): WP1 “Climate variability in the past” studies the European climate over the past 1000 years. The most important research goal is to achieve a better quantification of climate variations. Global and regional climate processes together with seasonal and year-on-year climate variability are being investigated in WP2 “Climate predictability, processes and forecasts”. The aim is to achieve more accurate forecasts that also include extreme events.

The target of WP3 “Effects on ecosystems and adaptation” is to assess the consequences of climate change on ecosystems. Possible adaptive strategies in agriculture and forestry are also being evaluated. Finally, WP4 “Climate risks” deals with political and economic questions: what are the future regional and global prospects for a “post-Kyoto” climate policy? How vulnerable are regional and global economic systems and what are the costs of adapting them to global climate change?

(1) Home page of the NFS Klima programme:

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