Successful rescue operation

An important environmental archive in the canton of Bern was recently placed under protection as a geotope. Researchers from the OCCR played a key role in securing this unique research site.

Palaeoclimatologists and Palaeoecologists all over the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The climate and environmental archive, whose continued existence they have campaigned for, has been placed under protection. This archive of "utmost scientific importance" is the Faulenseemoos a bog in the Bernese Oberland. Scientific history was written here near Spiez. In 1944, Max Welten, a professor of botany at the University of Bern, achieved a global first as a researcher by quantifying the annual input of pollen grains in sediments. He utilised the seasonally layered deposits of the bog, known as Warves.

Such annual stratifications are very rare in natural archives such as lakes, but are particularly important for research, as they make it possible to reconstruct past climatic and environmental changes with the greatest precision. As far as is known, the Faulenseemoos is the only mire - Swiss-German “Moos”- in Europe that has such annual layers. They were formed when today's mire was still a lake. The deposits on the ground contain so-called proxies, such as pollen, diatoms and insect remains, as well as elements and stable isotopes that provide information about the history of vegetation, among other things. Proxies reveal information about plants, animals and water quality, they provide data on temperatures and precipitation, and they tell us about the intensity and type of agriculture practised by our ancestors.

A unique research site with worldwide significance

For Willy Tinner, now the third successor to Max Welten as Professor of Paleoclimatology at the University of Bern and member of the OCCR, the Faulenseemoos represents a climate and environmental archive that is "unique in Europe" and is of "outstanding importance" for science both nationally and internationally. This "natural treasure", as the local newspaper Berner Oberländer called it, was in danger of disappearing due to human intervention. The area came under increasing pressure from land use, road construction, trade and industry, among other things. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was partially drained, and houses and warehouses were built on the edges of the bog. The drainage led to an influx of air into the soil and thus to the disappearance of the environmental information stored in the sediments. This is because the archive only remains intact as long as it is moistened by water and sealed airtight. "The Faulenseemoos faced an acute threat," states Willy Tinner.

The Palaeoecologist and other members of the OCCR therefore campaigned for its preservation. Their plan was to have the mire protected as a geotope and prevent it from drying out through measures such as rewetting - i.e. raising the groundwater level and thus increasing the moisture level. The researchers approached the authorities of the Canton of Bern with these and other proposals back in 2012. When nothing happened after that, they followed up in 2019 with a large-scale petition to "implement protective measures", which was signed by over 100 researchers and experts from more than 20 countries. The petition states that it is not only the work of the pioneer Welten that has made the Faulenseemoos famous in the scientific community worldwide. Its uniqueness is emphasised by follow-up studies in which further important research findings on ecological processes in the past have been obtained using new methods.

Heavy fines contribute to the protection of the geotope

The researchers have now come a good deal closer to their goal. The Cantonal Office for Agriculture and Nature has placed the Faulenseemoos under protection as a precautionary measure with effect from the end of January 2024. And emphasises its importance with drastic penalties. The official decision provides for fines of up to CHF 100,000 - including if digging, construction or drainage continues in the mire. Agricultural use, on the other hand, remains permitted to the same extent as before.

No scientific research is currently being carried out in the now protected geotope. "But new projects and findings are possible in the future," says Willy Tinner, "which is why we want to protect the area." Despite all efforts, the entire Faulenseemoos can no longer be used as an environmental archive - in certain areas the Warves have already irretrievably disappeared. This makes the late but hopefully effective decision by the Canton of Bern to preserve this unique geotope for future generations all the more pleasing.

(March 2024)