Of debris, growing glaciers and the colours of water

Five years ago, Francesca Pellicciotti, a specialist in high mountain glaciers, came to the WSL in Birmensdorf with an ERC Consolidator Grant. Today, shortly before completing the ERC project, she is already coordinating two other major projects – and is a Professor of Cryosphere and Mountain Hydrosphere in Austria: a visit to the Institute of Science and Technology Austria ISTA in Klosterneuburg.

The building, called the Moonstone Building, is brand new. The hanging garden, a wall of moss that stretches across all four floors in an inner courtyard, still exudes a slight odour of moorland. The best place to admire it is from the break room on the third floor. Catriona Fyffe and Thomas Shaw offer us a coffee. They are two of the six postdocs in Francesca Pellicciotti’s group. Both have followed her here in recent months, he from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL in Birmensdorf, she from Northumbria University in the UK. Thomas has been a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow since 2021, Catriona will start her Fellowship in January.

The ISTA campus is located far out in the countryside, on the outskirts of Klosterneuburg to the north of Vienna. We want to know whether the move here was easy for them. Thomas laughs: «I had a bit of a culture shock when I came to Birmensdorf,» he explains. He had previously spent three years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago de Chile. Even Zurich, with 400,000 inhabitants, is very small compared to Santiago de Chile, a city of seven million, he adds. At least he got to know Switzerland during his work at the WSL. For his Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions project, part of TEMPEST (Global Air TEMPerature ESTimation on high mountain glaciers), he worked on Swiss glaciers, particularly in the Valais. However, he emphasises: «Glaciologists don’t always have to travel, they use satellites.»

I have learnt
to strive for the best
possible science and
to always ask
new questions.

Catriona, however, is used to rural areas. She works mainly on the glaciers of Peru, having just returned from working in the fields. The working conditions are extreme, the glaciers are located at over 5,000 metres above sea level and Catriona stays for more than two weeks at a time.

In the Cordillera Vilcanota, she has carried out measurements of the melt water in the glacier catchment area. «This is very important for the local population, as their alpacas graze on the wetlands below the glaciers,» she says. The problem: at the moment, water is still coming through the melt, but this is causing the glacier to shrink. The modelling should provide information on when the glacier is no longer releasing enough water. The group is working closely with Peruvian researchers, which also enables a direct dialogue with the local communities.

A little bit like Google

Francesca Pellicciotti joins us, full of energy and cheerful, and leads us briskly through wide corridors with soundproof glass cubicles for undisturbed work and armchairs with high backrests to protect us from prying eyes. Her office is small and sober. The most important furnishing for the scientist is the computer on which she can show us modelling. She sits down in front of it and opens a few files.

Is her ERC project RAVEN, with the full title «Rapid mass loss of debris-covered glaciers in High Mountain Asia», now finished? “Soon!” she says and shows what it’s all about: debris-covered glaciers in the high mountains of Asia, HMA for High Mountain Asia for short. One would expect the debris to protect them from warming, i.e. to act as an insulating blanket. However, satellite data from 2012 showed that ice-covered and debris-covered glaciers are thinning at the same rate. Francesca Pellicciotti had just returned from her first trip to Nepal, where she had found large cliffs and meltwater ponds under some of them. She therefore suspected that these might be responsible for the fact that the debris-covered glaciers lose mass at the same rate as the glaciers without the debris cover – and received the ERC Consolidator Grant to investigate further. The result: the cliffs function like windows that allow energy from the atmosphere into the glacier. The meltwater ponds also absorb a lot of energy, which is released into the ice as it flows away.

Results with a pull effect

The results can also be applied to other glaciers. However, they were also controversial at first: other researchers believed that although the cliffs were important, they were only partly responsible for the melting. Today, various research groups are therefore working on debris-covered glaciers.

Francesca Pellicciotti received the ERC Grant in 2017 as an associate professor at Northumbria University in Newcastle and decided to move back to Switzerland – she had completed her doctorate in environmental engineering at ETH Zurich and worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior assistant. «I actually liked it at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. But apart from teaching, there was hardly any opportunity to form a research group,» she explains. So, she turned to the WSL, where Director Prof. Dr. Konrad Steffen wanted to establish a research focus in glaciology. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Konrad Steffen died in an accident in Greenland in 2020.

Another important reason for the scientist to return to Switzerland was the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF: «It’s competitive, but you can always apply and you often win.» European funding, on the other hand, makes you raise the bar, she says. They have to be groundbreaking projects. «Winning the ERC award was a revelation for me,» she explains. «I started with a controversial topic and I learnt a lot during the process – I learnt to strive for the best possible science and to always ask new questions.»

The scientist does not know whether the ERC is the reason why she was appointed to ISTA. She also brought two SNSF projects with her from WSL as part of the PAMIR project, a flagship programme of the Swiss Polar Institute, which was launched in 2022 and is coordinated by her. «There was also a competition for this grant,» she recalls. In the past, the institute awarded smaller research grants of a few tens of thousands of francs. In 2021, instead of several smaller projects, the decision was made to support one or two so-called flagship projects – research projects that would not receive support from either the SNSF or the EU, but are associated with great risk and potentially major progress.

The fascination of the third pole

Like the RAVEN project, PAMIR is dedicated to the high mountains of Asia. Francesca Pellicciotti explains why this region is so important: «HMA is the so-called third pole. It is home to the largest ice masses outside the poles, together with one of the highest population densities with growing economic centres, but also with political instability. There are no democracies there, but there are already conflicts over water distribution and mass migration due to the poverty in this region.» In this region, water from the glaciers is extremely important.

The research area
around the green
and blue water is
the next frontier.

The Pamir Mountains are characterised by a little-known phenomenon: the glaciers are all losing mass. However, analysing data from satellites over the years has shown that the glaciers in this area are not shrinking – they are even growing in some cases. The group is now working on understanding the reasons for this behaviour. Researchers from four Swiss universities and the Paul Scherrer Institute are also involved. And Francesca Pellicciotti is confident: «Yes, we will find out in the next three years.»

The colours of water

Another research focus of the group is the relationship between so-called green and blue water in the high mountains. This research area is «the next frontier», as the researcher puts it. Blue water is water from rain, glacier and snow melt. Green is the water which evaporates directly from the soil or via the plants and is returned to the atmosphere. And the research group defines white water as the amount that is directly returned to the atmosphere from the glacier through evaporation.

A new major project in this area was awarded 1.6 million euros in funding on 6 October. It is called MegaWat («Megadroughts in the Water towers of Europe – from process understanding to strategies for management and adaptation») and, as with PAMIR, Francesca Pellicciotti is in charge of the project. Researchers from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain from the fields of climate science, hydrology and water management are involved. The project is funded by the Water4All funding programme, which is financed by Horizon Europe together with the national authorities of 18 European countries.

Megadroughts are being researched: as the earth warms, glaciers are releasing more and more water. But they are also decreasing constantly as a result, so that from a certain point in time, the so-called peak water, they release less and less water. In addition, droughts are becoming more frequent.

The damage caused by major droughts, such as those we experienced in the Alps last year and this year, can be compensated for in subsequent years, for example by higher rainfall. The MegaWat project is investigating how much it takes for this system to collapse. Experience has been gained from Chile, where a major drought hit in 2010 and is still continuing today. The consequences are devastating. Cows and grain are dying. Water is becoming scarce in cities and industry, and the economy is suffering.

From the Pyrenees to the Caucasus

The group is investigating droughts lasting more than a year and the amount of blue, green and white water in the mountains throughout Europe, i.e. in the Alps, but also in the Apennines, the Caucasus and the Pyrenees. The group wants to find out more about the effects of megadroughts on Europe’s mountains – and about the role that glaciers and the cryosphere play and will play in buffering the water deficit. Francesca Pellicciotti emphasises: «The project was launched before the heatwaves of 2022 and 2023!»

Through MegaWat, Francesca Pellicciotti will continue to be associated with Swiss researchers, in particular the climate scientists Reto Knutti, Heini Wernli and Erich Fischer from ETH Zurich. However, her contract with the WSL expires in March 2024. «One year of relocation will have to suffice,» she says and laughs. Then she points to her bike, which is parked in front of the building, and says, «We can have lunch together, but it will take me about an hour to cycle back to Vienna.»

Interview mit Francesca Pellicciotti  (in Englisch)
Francesca Pellicciotti

Francesca Pellicciotti has been Professor of Cryosphere and Mountain Hydrosphere at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria ISTA in Klosterneuburg/Vienna since March 2023. Born in Rome, Italy, in 1971, she studied Environmental Engineering at La Sapienza University in Rome and completed her doctorate at ETH Zurich. She worked there from 2004 to 2014, first as a Postdoctoral Researcher and then as a Senior Assistant, before moving to Northumbria University in Newcastle, United Kingdom, as an Assistant Professor in 2015. In 2018, she joined the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL as Senior Scientist and Group Leader, where she will remain until March 2024. Francesca Pellicciotti is Chair of the IACS (International Association for Cryospheric Sciences) working group on debris-covered glaciers and has already been honoured with numerous research awards in addition to her ERC Grant. She lives in Vienna with her partner and their soon-to-be eight-year-old son Jonas.

Horizon 2020 Projects

TEMPEST: Modelling mountain glacier air temperatures for improved future meltwater estimates

  • Programme: ERC Consolidator Grant 
  • Duration: 1. May 2018 – 30. April 2023 (60 months)
  • Contribution for Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL): 2’000’000 € 

RAVEN: Rapid mass loss of debris covered glaciers in High Mountain Asia

  • Programme: Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship 
  • Duration: 1. October 2021 – 30. September 2023 (24 months)
  • Contribution for Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL): 191’149 € 
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