“I’ve always had two mainstays in my career”

7 December 2020

Bettina Schaefli joined the University of Bern a year ago as a professor of hydrology. In this interview, the OCCR member talks about the risks of water and electricity shortages, the importance of field research and the interest in her findings.

Bettina Schaefli

Bettina Schaefli, you’re a pioneer when it comes to modelling Alpine water resources. Why is that?

I fell into it, so to speak. For my doctoral thesis, I did the first study on future hydropower in the Swiss Alps. Of course, there were already some model-based approaches, but my study was the first to take the results of climate model runs into account and that  tried to estimate uncertainties with regard to water resources in the Alps. I started at the beginning of the 2000s, when a new era of climate change impact simulation started, using several models and scenarios. This ultimately influenced my specialization in long-term prediction for water resources. My focus is still strongly on Alpine water resources, but I have also diversified. For example, a recently completed doctoral thesis dealt with the water resources in Volta River basin in Africa. Of course, this poses completely different modelling challenges than in Switzerland, where we have a good data basis.

In the future, Switzerland will be confronted with seasonal and local water scarcity. How well can you create models for these situations?

This will be one of my future research priorities. Among other things, I’m interested in how technical irrigation options, which are always being developed in agriculture, could lead to water scarcity. This involves small catchment areas across the Swiss Plateau. This region will be much more affected by water scarcity than the Alps, and it will lead to interesting questions.

Are such small-scale climate impacts more difficult to model than large-scale changes?

In terms of precision, some very different challenges arise. If we’re in a mountain catchment area where precipitation can’t be measured accurately, even a 20 percent margin of error is still acceptable. On the other hand, if we move into Swiss Plateau catchment areas that are used for agricultural purposes, the requirements are completely different. Small-scale modelling makes it more difficult to scale down climate model runs, but the meteorological conditions of the Swiss Plateau are less heterogeneous than in the Alps.

the Vallon de Nant

When you were an SNSF Assistant Professor at the University of Lausanne, you conducted field research in the Vaud Alps at the same location for years. Will you continue to do so?

Yes, I intend to. The idea is to continue these measurements in the Vallon de Nant and find a suitable similar catchment area in the Bernese Oberland, too. In hydrology, long-term observations are essential. Even five or so years’ worth of data are very valuable. From this point of view, it is important that a few selected catchment areas are researched, even if they are not necessarily nearby. Our catchment in canton de Vaud also has the advantage that many other groups conduct research there. A catchment area that has been studied in an interdisciplinary manner, where, for example, plant ecology, geology or geomorphology are also studied, is a stroke of luck for the study of hydrological processes. It is difficult to set up something like this in a new location.

A group of researchers in the Vallon de Nant

How do you experience the interdisciplinary cooperation at the Oeschger Centre?

As a result of the Covid situation, my contacts are currently limited to the Institute of Geography. But the Oeschger Centre plays a very important role for me, because as a physical geographer and engineer at the University of Bern, I have few colleagues. Compared to other universities, the geosciences here are relatively small here. That makes it all the more important that the Oeschger Centre brings people together across disciplines – a huge advantage. Truly interdisciplinary cooperation isn’t necessarily easy at other universities. Only in the coming years will I be able to benefit, probably. But the Oeschger Centre has already awarded me a postdoc position.

What’s the subject matter?

We are investigating so-called energy droughts and we want to quantify the risks we would face if too little electricity was produced across Europe. This involves covariations between wind, water and sun. The situation could typically become critical in a cold, dry summer when there is little water in Switzerland and little sun and wind elsewhere in Europe. We are doing this project together with mathematics colleagues and the Institute of Geography. This is my first official collaboration at the Oeschger Centre, others will follow as soon as we meet in person again – hopefully soon.

Grande Dixence lake

Your research is focused on energy produced via hydropower. In the past, power plant operators were not so keen to learn about climate change. Has that changed?

Absolutely. Today’s hydropower producers – and not just the big ones – are very interested in research results. The University of Bern has already had a well-established collaboration with Kraftwerke Oberhasli, KWO, one of Switzerland’s largest hydropower producers. I will extend this cooperation. All the major players are aware that in order to be prepared, they need to know what the future holds for water. Recently, agriculture has also shown a great deal of interest in research. This has to do with the extreme years that we’ve experienced recently. There have been so many extremely dry autumns and summers that nobody can deny the consequences of climate change anymore.

Do you deliberately carry out applied research in your studies on energy production?

Making the results of our research available to potential users has always been important to me. Perhaps that’s also because during my doctoral thesis I developed a model that’s still used in canton Valais – or at least some of its components. This model approach also led to the establishment of a company, which is why I’ve always tried to transfer knowledge within my personal network. I have also worked as a hydrology expert on projects at the federal level, such as the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050, and it is to my advantage that I originally trained as an engineer. That’s why I always try to stay close to applied engineering issues while advancing basic research, the hydrological process research in the field. In my career I have always had these two mainstays.