Glacier researcher Andrea Fisher (50) has been named “Scientist of the Year 2023” by the Education and Science Journalists Club. The deputy head of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) in Innsbruck received the award on Monday in Vienna for communicating her scientific work, in which she demonstrated the massive melting of Alpine glaciers for years.
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With this election, held for the 30th time this year, the Education and Science Journalists Club wants to honor the efforts of scientists to make their work and subject matter understandable to a wide audience. This also aims to raise awareness of the importance of research.
The head of the ÖAW research group “Human-Environment-High Mountain Relations” and her team “are concerned to communicate the results of our research in an understandable way because we feel that something very unusual is happening here: climate change can be seen in the most radical, the best and the most intuitive glaciers,” Fischer told APA. When you see pictures of retreating glaciers and hear reports of them, “you immediately understand that there are things going on here that we need to pay attention to.”
At the award ceremony, Fisher pointed out the importance of building a bridge from specialized knowledge to general knowledge: “Enlightenment is not a guaranteed success and we must all fight for the knowledge-based society that we would all like to have every day.” Otherwise it wouldn't happen in a “witch burnings will happen again because of climate change” context.
The “messages from glaciers” are important because “in highly developed countries we are of course among the main causes of climate change and we also have the resources to develop methods and take a leading role to limit climate change,” the glaciologist said. His work is also received by international media, from “Süddeutsche Zeitung” to “The Guardian” to “The Washington Post.” The award shows her that the things she and her team are trying to say are heard.
Expect complete loss of glaciers in the Eastern Alps
Ten years ago, Fisher responded negatively to the question of whether she saw the risk of glaciers disappearing entirely. She now hypothesizes that this will be the case in the Eastern Alps as early as 2050. The reason for this is “strongly changing global warming dynamics.” As a result, “melting occurs not only on the surface but also to an equal extent on the subsurface. Glaciers are crumbling over a large area, and meltwater and warm air flow through at double the melting rates.”
Change happens quickly: “When I started measuring glaciers, we didn't find any meltwater even in the middle of the day in September. Now we're standing at the glacier in November and it's dripping.” High temperatures will penetrate the rocks to such an extent that deeper layers will melt and large-scale rockfall activities will occur. “These are completely new processes, the effects of which we cannot yet predict 100 percent, and we really have to look at them closely,” says the former national ice climbing champion and mountain sports enthusiast, who in 2020 was the subject of her research. Together with photographer Bernd Reichl, he documented the book “The Alpine Glacier – a tribute to the world of ice and snow in the high Alps – before it disappeared” (Tyrulia).
The scientist stressed that just as it was impossible to imagine the melting of glaciers on the current scale for a long time, there may also be “impacts in the entire climate system that we do not yet know about. This should make us particularly cautious.” Of the year. It is not only about reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit temperature rise, but also about the adaptation measures we need to take now in order to continue to live well in the Alps, a very sensitive area when it comes to natural hazards. “.
The main problem caused by climate change will not be the loss of glaciers, but, for example, heavy rainfall, the reaction of ecosystems and protective forests. “What we are seeing from the glaciers is that something very unusual is happening here,” Fisher said, but called for “extreme caution” when interpreting the event. “We need a joint effort from all population groups to control climate change, and it is important that we have a solid foundation and as little guesswork as possible.” Adaptation measures must be taken to respond to the inevitable, “but we also have to decide what level of climate change we want to see acceptable and what we are willing to invest in.”
As the glaciers melt, a unique climate archive dating back 6,000 years is also lost, because various clues to the past climate can be found in the ice. So Fisher and her colleagues are trying to extract ice cores from shrinking glaciers in extensive drilling, thus preserving this frozen data on climate history.
Pioneering the retreat of glaciers
The Eastern Alps are pioneering the retreat of glaciers, while in other regions of the world such as Scandinavia, Alaska or high mountains such as the Himalayas, climate change is being delayed by melting glaciers. “Our glaciers are Mickey Mouse glaciers compared to the world's glaciers, but we have a unique laboratory here for other regions,” Fisher said, referring to new methods being developed in this country to study the disintegration of glaciers. To be able to measure at all.
Given the importance of the topic, it seems surprising that long-term glacier measurements in Austria are largely carried out on a voluntary basis by committed individuals or on a club basis. In the middle of the 19th century, when the Hydrographic Services and the Central Institute of Metrology and Geodynamics were founded, glaciology was forgotten, “and we do not realize it to this day.” There is no single publicly funded permafrost measurement in this country. The permafrost sometimes reaches 1,200 meters above sea level, which means the settlement area is also threatened by melting ice. Therefore, Fisher considers it “very important to put research on a healthy foundation and find basic funding for the different series of measurements.”
If glacier measurements become official, Fischer can imagine that “hydrography could play a role, but so could the climate ministry.” The effort required for this is “relatively low; you can run the whole thing for 150,000 euros a year.” However, it will be important not only to make measurements, “but also to connect a very good communication line to them.”
In recent years, ecologist Franz Issel (2022), complexity researcher Peter Klimek (2021), virologist Elisabeth Buchhammer (2020), historian Barbara Stelzl-Marx (2019), and chemist Nuno Moled (2018) have received the award. .
Congratulations to Fischer came from, among others, Education Minister Martin Polaszek (ÖVP), ÖAW President Heinz Fassmann and the Green Party's science spokeswoman, Eva Plemlinger. At the awards ceremony, Fassmann noted Fischer's contribution to ensuring that large parts of the population in Austria acknowledge the existence of climate change. He stressed that it “does not allow itself to be harnessed to an ideological vehicle,” remains faithful to science and maintains “the necessary distance from politics.”
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