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Bold steps into uncharted territory

28 November 2014

Three young researchers from the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research have launched an interdisciplinary conference on the Spörer Minimum. So much scientific zest at a young age is rare.

Bold steps into uncharted territory

The first attempt was tough. When Kathrin Keller, Melanie Salvisberg and Chantal Camenisch started developing their workshop idea, the doctoral and post-doctoral researchers got some questioning looks. “Some people thought that we were being pushed into it by our professors,” says Kathrin Keller. “Apparently, it’s rare that the initiative for an international conference comes from the lower end of the academic hierarchy.”

Undeterred, the three women sought financing, gained the confidence of the Oeschger Centre management, secured prestigious researchers as speakers and solved a whole series of organizational and logistical problems. So now, from 4-5 December 2014, about 50 people will debate whether the period around 1430 was indeed the coldest decade of the last millennium and what consequences this cold period had on the economy, society and culture.

Exchanging historical and climatological knowledge

It was Chantal Camenisch’s idea to organize a scientific conference on the Spörer Minimum: a cold period in the 15th and 16th centuries. In her thesis, the historian had reconstructed the climate of this time using period documents. She had also looked for literature referring to the Spörer Minimum, but only found older and mainly conflicting material. This inspired her to see whether other researchers would be interested in exchanging historical and climatological knowledge about this extraordinary chapter in climate history.

During a so-called “Apero Series” for young researchers studying at the Oeschger Centre, Chantal Camenisch began talking to Kathrin Keller and Melanie Salvisberg. As a climate scientist, one was working on her dissertation on climate modelling; the other was looking into flood risk measures for her PhD as a historian. The three decided to explore uncharted territory and organize a workshop about the Spörer Minimum – named, incidentally, after German astronomer Gustav Spörer, who was the first to describe this period of low solar activity. From 1430-1439, especially dramatic weather conditions led to crop failure and famine throughout Europe.

Intellectual interdisciplinary experiment

It’s been eight months since the three young researchers had their first exchange over that aperitif. In the meantime they’ve learnt some things that weren’t a part of the academic curriculum. “I was amazed at what you have to deal with,” says Kathrin Keller, “Things you don’t even think of as a conference participant.” Even if the impetus for the Spörer Minimum workshop came about for personal reasons, planning the event could also have a positive impact on the careers of the organizers. Successful scientific networking pays off. But for the moment, Kathrin Keller is interested to see whether the reconstruction specialists, climate modellers and historians from all over Europe will really get into conversations with each other. “I’m curious whether these people will somehow have a meeting of the minds – that’s a real experiment.”

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