Ms Romppainen, you originally expected about 50 participants in Bern, and then over 300 researchers joined the online version. Why so much interest?
Olivia Romppainen: On the one hand, virtual participation is much easier than travelling to Bern. On the other hand, at the moment there is a real need for more exchange in the field of science. After nine or ten months of the coronavirus pandemic, people are longing to meet again – even if it’s only virtually. I also notice my own need for these regular exchanges in order to develop and discuss ideas.
Don’t online conferences take place all the time?
No, not in our field, and many have been postponed. Of course there are the big conferences, but these are very impersonal and not designed for informal interaction. We, on the other hand, have created some opportunities, for example via a virtual coffee corner.
What did the conference cover in terms of content?
It demonstrated that there are two directions in research: There are researchers who investigate what very extreme events could look like – events that we’ve never experienced, but which would have catastrophic consequences. On the other hand there are researchers who study infrequent events that occur from time to time and have very large socio-economic consequences.
Can you give some examples?
Events that we have already experienced include the combination of droughts and heat waves. This can trigger a cascade of subsequent events. If forests are weakened by drought, they are more susceptible to pests and are further weakened by them. This can lead to the collapse of the inventory of a particular tree species. This was seen, for example, in the drought summers of 2018 and 2019 in Germany. The unlikely events could be, for example, heat waves of a duration and intensity that we have never experienced, but which are entirely plausible in terms of the underlying meteorological conditions. Possible, but very, very unlikely.