«Using creative methods to look for solutions»

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Manuela Brunner leads the new Hydrology & Climate Impacts in Mountain Regions research group at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF. On a walk around Lake Davos, she tells us what she is working on and why it is relevant for Switzerland in an age of climate change.

The SLF showcases the research groups of the Climate Change, Extremes and Natural Hazards in Alpine Regions Research Centre CERC , in no particular order. Founded in 2021, the CERC is sponsored by the Canton of Grisons and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL and is supported by ETH Zurich. It is part of the SLF in Davos.

Manuela, you’re a geographer and climate scientist. When did you decide to specialise in floods and droughts?

The project I did for my Matura [school-leaving qualification] was already on this topic. There had been once-in-a-century flooding in Switzerland in 2005, so I surveyed people in a commune in the canton of Uri to find out what they thought of the extreme event. Years later, when I was looking for a topic for my Master’s thesis, flooding seemed like the obvious choice again.

As a group leader, you now get to devote all your attention to the subject. What exactly does your work entail?

I quantify where and how frequently extreme events of different kinds are likely to happen and how the probability of such events will change in the future. I do this for both floods and droughts. Both are very important for planning processes, especially in this age of climate change.

So this work has social relevance, particularly in Switzerland?

Definitely. Geography is very much about connections between society, economy, energy and natural sciences, and climate science is no different. I find that very exciting. For example, when designing hydraulic structures such as reservoirs, you need to know the maximum possible extent of flooding to ensure that the structure has the right dimensions. We also study the positive effects of storage facilities on water scarcity. Another aspect is contingency planning for extreme situations. It’s important to know in advance what events local disaster managers have to be prepared for in the worst case scenario. Our findings also feed into the development of such plans, although in most cases they only get put into practice years later.

Why is that?

Drought research offers a good illustration. Policymakers are currently acting reactively after events rather than proactively based on research findings. Of course, there are some issues where the answers don’t necessarily have a direct, practical use at the moment. But even these results could potentially be useful in the future. On the other hand, there are also issues where I’m inspired to act by current, practical problems. In that case, we use creative methods and new scientific approaches to look for solutions. We also have specific requests.

Can you give an example?

Yes, one issue that the federal government, cantons and communes - politicians, in other words - have been grappling with is water scarcity. Can reservoirs be used to reduce water scarcity? In that sense, it was a mandate from Parliament. Someone was really interested in the practicalities of the issue, not just me as a researcher but also other people involved in the practical side of things.

Do you also make a difference in society with your research?

I worked with the social scientist Elke Kellner to examine what potential a new reservoir would have in a certain region, not just for power generation but also to protect against water shortages. We combined the scientific and the social science perspectives. Elke then started wondering why water scarcity had never been considered in all the decision-making processes relating to new reservoirs in the past. It’s partly about politics and conflicts of interest, so there again the research has political implications.