University of Lausanne Launches Interdisciplinary Mountain Research Center

The Interdisciplinary Center for Mountain Research (ICMR) was launched by the University of Lausanne (UNIL) as a four-year pilot project to contribute to the sustainable development of mountain regions. It does so by enhancing the synergies between 70 researchers from five UNIL faculties and nine research and dissemination institutions mostly from the Alpine region. Among these associated entities is the Mountain Research Initiative, supporting international outreach and connection.

Inaugurated on November 2, 2018, the ICMR aims at deepening our knowledge about the challenges faced by mountain regions by using a wide range of methods from the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. Research will concentrate on a set of themes identified through discussions with UNIL experts on mountains during the center’s design phase: time and sustainability, change and transitions, natural hazards and risks, mountain society, natural resources, ecosystem services, innovation, food labels, and tourism and health.

But the integration of diverse research methods and themes is not enough. Tackling the complexity of societal challenges in the face of climate and other global environmental changes also requires the integration of non-academic actors. Indeed, a priority for the ICMR is to anchor its research to the changing needs of mountain societies. Representatives of decision-makers and civil society sit together with researchers in the ICMR’s council, which makes the center’s strategic decisions. Strengthening the societal relevance of the ICMR will require the consolidation of such a transdisciplinary arrangement.

While the ICMR is interested in mountain ranges across the world, its activities will concentrate on a portion of the Alps situated between the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais. Such territories offer a complex interface between mountains and plains, as well as between rural and urban areas, in high-mountain and mid-altitude contexts, while including famous Alpine symbols such as the Matterhorn.

Inauguration of ICMR on the UNIL campus in Sion, November 2, 2018. (Credit: Leïla Kebir/ICMR)

One of the central pillars of the ICMR is the funding of interdisciplinary research projects through internal calls, to which inter-faculty teams of researchers can apply. This year will see the kick off of four seed-funding projects and four post-doctoral projects.

Seed-funding projects will mobilize a wide variety of disciplines and methods to develop pilot studies and prototypes leading to larger research projects. The team of Marie-Elodie Perga, an associate professor at the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, UNIL, will study the feasibility of developing a role-play game about the adaptation of an imaginary Alpine landscape to climate change. Created in collaboration with stakeholders and fed with data from several researchers, the role-play game aims at raising public awareness about the consequences of current choices regarding the management of landscapes and their adaptation to climate change. Meanwhile, a better understanding of how climate change affects glacial erosion in the Alps is the goal of a project led by Frédéric Herman, an associate professor at the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, UNIL. His team is going to measure several parameters in the Gorner Glacier in order to refine the glacial erosion rule describing the complex relationships between glacial speed and erosion. This knowledge is crucial to understand the interaction between glaciers and their surroundings in a changing climate.

The Gorner glacier: a changing cryosphere. (Credit: Emmanuel Reynard/ICMR)

A project led by Michiel de Vaan, a privatdozent in the Department of English, UNIL, will explore the distribution of place names in the municipality of Ormont-Dessus (Vaud Alps) and their relationship with the geography of the mountains. Comparing these results with those from a municipality in the plain, the project wants to understand how the specific features of mountains influence the density and diversity of place names. This integration between linguistics and statistics will materialize in an online atlas of place names.

Finally, the team led by Christophe Clivaz, an associate professor at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability, UNIL, will analyze how recreation practices in high mountains change with climate change, using alpine huts as observatories of such a transition. For this, the researchers will involve the huts’ staff in the design of surveys, that will be tested among the guests of five pilot huts.

Postdoctoral projects will also improve our knowledge of key aspects of Alpine regions with innovative approaches: Christine Moos will assess how the protective role of forests against rockfall may change with climate change and other perturbations; Janine Rüegg will research the ecology of the transition zones between alpine rivers and lakes, which so far remain disconnected areas of inquiry; Günther Prasicek wants to better understand the link between ice flow and erosion in glaciers, working in close connection with one of the seed-funding projects; and Alexandre Elsig will explore the history of industrial pollution and how different social actors worked to uncover or hide its evidence.

Another central pillar of ICMR is the organization of scientific and dissemination events, including a program of seminars and a decentralized series of conferences organized in collaboration with local partners.

This article was written by Iago Otero and Emmanuel Reynard and originally published by the Mountain Research Initiative at the University of Lausanne.

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As Glaciers Melt, They Hum Too

Researchers discovered a humming sound coming from the Gorner Glacier next to Gornersee (the tiny lake in blue) in Switzerland. (silent7seven/Flickr)
Researchers discovered a humming sound coming from the Gorner Glacier next to Gornersee (the tiny lake in blue) in Switzerland. (silent7seven/Flickr)

The hills are alive with the sound of… humming? Scientists from the U.S., France and Switzerland recently found that as glaciers melt, they make a low humming sound as water passes through them, according to a new study appearing last month in the journal Geology.

The phenomenon was first observed in the Swiss Alps when a research team placed seismometers near a glacial lake dammed by the Gorner Glacier on the side of the Monte Rosa Massif in an effort to monitor signs of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs). As the water from the lake drained through the glacier, the seismometers picked up tiny “harmonic tremors” in the mountain glacier, as well as similar humming sounds made by icequakes near the glacier’s base.

Sliding Fourier transforms (SFT) of 2007 data at the station nearest lake Gornersee, Switzerland (double triangle in Fig. 1), reveal gliding harmonic tremor during a 15 h period on 13 July 2007. The sudden step changes in harmonic tremor frequencies are indicative of hydrofracturing at englacial water-fi lled fractures. A: SFT of data collected from 12 July to 15 July 2007 (7/12–7/15). B: Enlargement of the 13 July record reveals tremor signal in detail. (source: David S. Heeszal, et al./Geology)
Sliding Fourier transforms (SFT) of 2007 data at the station nearest lake Gornersee, Switzerland (double triangle in Fig. 1), reveal gliding harmonic tremor during a 15 h period on 13 July 2007. The sudden step changes in harmonic tremor frequencies are indicative of hydrofracturing at englacial water-filled fractures. (source: David S. Heeszal, et al./Geology)

Part of the reason for the humming is that glaciers aren’t just big solid blocks of ice. Water moves through glaciers in an ever-evolving and complex series of tiny cracks, crevasses and channels (hydrofractures) within the glaciers themselves. Small pockets of water open and close within glaciers all the time as water flows from one part to another. Though how exactly this englacier water (that is, water within a glacier) moves isn’t yet fully understood.

The seismographs were able to measure the hums as water-filled cracks within the glacier opened and closed, but the humming noises were often at such a low frequency that a human ear could not detect them.

Humming glaciers are more than just a curious scientific phenomenon. The paper’s authors state that further research into the hums at the Gorner Glacier might lead to the development of an early warning system against GLOFs. In other words, glaciers may have a built-in alarm systems. GLOFS are difficult to predict because water draining from the lakes can follow a number of different paths over, under or through a glacier that is acting as a boundary or border for the lake, holding the lake water in place. Just watching the surface of the lake isn’t enough to predict when a massive flood will occur. Fortunately, when glaciers go, they don’t go quietly.

Switzerland's Gorner Glacier as seen from space. (NASA)
Switzerland’s Gorner Glacier as seen from space. (NASA)
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