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New climate centre boosts Bern's credentials

Swiss climate pioneer Hans Oeschger in Greenland in 1967

(Werner Stauffer)

Bern University has strengthened its leading position in climate research by opening a new competence centre to combine all its expertise.

The Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research aims to encourage a multidisciplinary approach to the study of climate change and its consequences for the environment and society.

"With the [new] centre, we want to further strengthen those areas in which we are already doing top international research," Bern geography professor Martin Grosjean told swissinfo.

They include ice core research in Antarctica and Greenland, or climate reconstruction, fields where there is strong competition, he added.

Grosjean, who is the executive director of the National Centre of Excellence in Research on Climate at Bern University, will take up the same function at the Oeschger Centre, which officially opened on Tuesday.

The university wants to catch up in some areas, including in disciplines such as climate economy and social science. Grosjean explained that the questions of the costs of climate change and dealing with the risks it entails had come to the fore of discussions.

Heinz Wanner, director of the National Competence Centre of Climate Reseach, told swissinfo that this kind of approach was not unique but special.

"If you look at the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change it is said that there has to be cooperation between natural science - biology, economy, law and so on.

"But there are not too many universities in Europe which are performing such programmes. In a certain sense it is unique that certain universities like Bern are starting such a programme," he explained.

New professors

Wanner added that Bern's reputation also acted as a magnet when it came to funding programmes.

"I would not say that the rankings of the universities are too important. But if a university wants to get money for its research - from the government or the National Science Foundation, from Brussels or private companies - it's important to show that you also have an international reputation."

As part of efforts to build on its success, the university has given the centre SFr2 million ($1.68 million) which will help to fund two new professorships and promote four people to professors.

Bern University already offers a two-year master's course, which is carried out in cooperation with the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Just 20 students enter the international programme annually after passing a stringent selection process.

"Bern is a competitive location and is regarded as such," Grosjean pointed out.

Graduates of the master's degree may one day tread in the footsteps of leading Bernese climate researchers Wanner, Thomas Stocker and others. Their research formed a basis for Al Gore's successful documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", which earned the former United States vice-president an Oscar.

"We were very surprised at the reactions the film generated because the facts were partly known for many years," Grosjean said.

Hans Oeschger

The new research centre is named after the environment physicist Hans Oeschger who died in 1998. The Bernese scientist developed among other things methods to drill and analyse the ice core.

Oeschger's discovery that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere had increased by about 30 per cent over the past 250 years as a result of the burning of coal, oil and natural gas made him not only a founder of climate research, but also gave Bern University a leading role in this field.

He was troubled by the potentially adverse consequences of an increased greenhouse effect caused by the steady rise in atmospheric C02 and was not afraid to voice his fears.

Oeschger gave many public lectures on the subject of climate change and was also a lead author of the First Assessment Report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Renat Künzi

Hans Oeschger

The internationally renowned physicist lived from 1927-1998.

He was the founder of the Division of Climate and Environmental Physics at the Physics Institute of Bern University in 1963.

Oeschger was the first to date the "age" of water from the depths of the Pacific and a pioneer of ice core research in Antarctica and Greenland.

He proved that the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere had risen by 30% over the last 250 years because of the burning of fossil fuels.

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