Climate scientist is awarded cutting edge research grant by the European Research Council

4 May 2015

OCCR Member Hubertus Fischer was awarded a grant of 2.26 Million Euro by the European Research Council for research on polar ice cores. This is the climate physicist’s second project funded by one of the prestigious “ERC Advanced Grants”, illustrating the internationally top ranking ice and climate research at the Oeschger Centre.

With the support of this «ERC Advanced Grant» by the European Research Council (ERC), Hubertus Fischer will develop a new method to measure greenhouse gases in polar ice cores. «Such ice cores represent the only climate archive with which the past composition of the atmosphere can be directly reconstructed», the Bernese climatologist explains. The key difference to previous methods is that with the new approach the concentration of the three greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide as well as the isotopic composition of the carbon dioxide can all be precisely determined with one single measurement on the same sample. Fischer: «Using this nondestructive method, the precious ice core air is not used up and can also be used for other subsequent analyses.» All this will be crucial for the success of a future international ice core drilling project in Antarctica planned to start 2019/20. This drilling intends to expand the greenhouse gas history over the last 1.5 million years. Previously ice core scientists were «only» able to look back in time 800,000 years. «In such old and deep samples, several ten thousands of years of climate history are contained in only a few metres of ice», Hubertus Fischer explains. «The available amount of air is therefore too small to measure all the climate parameters of interest in the required resolution using the existing analytical techniques.»

Tiny air samples – maximum precision

Within Fischer’s project called deepSLice («Deciphering the greenhouse gas record in deepest ice using continuous sublimation extraction/laser spectrometry»), a novel sublimation extraction method for air enclosed in ice cores will be developed that, for the first time, will allow 100 percent of all the air components to be extracted. In addition, a new instrument for the laser spectrometric analysis of all the greenhouse gas concentrations and the carbon dioxide isotopes will be developed.

This instrument will allow high-precision measurements even on the tiny air samples of only about 1 ml that can be extracted from the ice. In this endeavour, Hubertus Fischer is supported by the research group of Lukas Emmenegger, head of the division for Air Pollution/Environmental Technology at Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology), one of the leaders in the development and application of laser spectrometric instruments for gas analytics in environmental research.

Second ERC Advanced Grant for Fischer

This is the first time the University of Bern has received an ERC Advanced Grant since the start of the new EU Framework Programme HORIZON 2020 last year. For Hubertus Fischer it is his second such grant. Already in 2008, the ERC supported his Advanced Grant project MATRICs, which aimed at developing innovative physical methods to reconstruct temperatures using polar ice cores. Several thousand renowned scientists from all over Europe compete each year for the ERC Advanced Grants, but in the end only 10 to 15 percent are selected for funding. ERC Advanced Grants fund projects that go far beyond the current state-of-the-art in their research field, have a large potential for innovation but also carry considerable risk. For deepSLice, the ERC will provide 2.26 million Euro over the next five years. Apart from the development of new instruments, this funding will be mainly used to support two early career scientists at the University of Bern.

From Bremen to Bern

Hubertus Fischer (49) studied Physics in Germany and the USA and completed his PhD in 1997 at the Institute for Environmental Physics at the University of Heidelberg. After a PostDoc in the US, he became senior scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven and lectured at the University of Bremen. Since 2008, he is a full professor at the University of Bern, where he also carried out his first ERC project. His research foci are the reconstruction of changes in biogeochemical cycles in the past that lead to changes in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, as well as of changes in past climate and atmospheric dynamics. Fischer is a member of the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern, president of the Swiss Commission for Polar and High Altitude Research of the Swiss Academy of Sciences and co-chair of the project «Past Global Changes» (PAGES), supporting and coordinating the international research in paleoscience.

(Source: University of Bern press relase)